Questions Surround New Kosher Food Booth At New York State Fair

SYRACUSE, NY – The Great New York State Fair opened for its 175th year last week and for the first time it features a kosher food booth.

Catering by The Oaks, a Syracuse-based food service run by the Sodexo company, is the vendor serving an all-dairy menu including deep-fried potato knishes ($4), deep-fried apple or cheese blintzes coated with cinnamon and brown sugar or drizzled with strawberry topping and powdered sugar ($4), deep-fried matzah balls ($4), as well as bagel and lox sandwiches ($6).

For those favoring a healthier option, the knishes and blintzes can be ordered as a baked selection, and gluten-free citrus salmon lettuce wraps ($10) and chopped Israeli salad ($2) will be part of the menu as well.

The concessionaire said the pricing is in line with non-kosher fair food.

“What we did was take the cost of the product, the fees and expenses that we pay for being at the fair, and what is in line for what the market is,” said Jarrod Charsky, general manager of Sodexo and The Oaks in Syracuse. “I can tell you our price point is probably lower than our competitors at the New York State Fair. We want to make it where everyone can try the food…. we want to make it exciting, we want to make it where everyone will want to try this. We want to go on the theme of deep-fried fun food for people who are willing to try new things.

“When I designed this menu I wanted to add to the fun and add to the fair theme. Deep-fried is always a great thing at the fair. Everyone always loves deep-fried stuff, kind of like a nice little carnival menu.”

According to people involved with setting up the kosher kiosk, which is shomer Shabbos, the contract apparently was selected by the acting state fair director and the director of the concessions and exhibits office at the fair. But is the size of the contract large enough that it should have been offered for competitive bidding?

Rabbi Aaron Metzger, director of kosher law enforcement for the state, said he could not comment without agency officials providing approval. Agency officials declined to make Rabbi Metzger available to comment for this story.

“I was contacted by a representative from the governor’s office about three or four months ago to see if we could make it happen and I spoke to the caterer that does the catering at Menorah Park, which is Sodexo,” Rabbi Evan Shore, spiritual leader at Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse and mashgiach for the kosher kiosk, told The Jewish Press.

“I asked them if they were interested. We then met with the acting state fair director and after some back and forth they went back to Menorah Park, a senior citizens home, and they contracted out to Sodexo as their caterer.”

Charsky agrees with Rabbi Shore’s recollection. Rabbi Metzger, he said, “approached our rabbi [Evan Shore] and then our rabbi came to us [Sodexo] and he said I think this will be a wonderful thing because we’re the only kosher caterer in Central New York. Rabbi Metzger put us together with [state fair officials].”

One obstacle the concessionaire has to contend with is that the kiosk’s food is chalav stam rather than chalav Yisrael, which means a number of Orthodox fairgoers have to bring their own food.

“The Oaks serves chalav stam at its Menorah Park facility,” said Rabbi Shore. “That is why the fair [is] chalav stam.”

The kosher food booth is not located in the International Food Pavilion but rather in the Horticulture Building on the fair’s 375-acre grounds. This is just feet away from where Chabad-Lubavitch of Central New York has a bustling education booth where Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport and his son put tefillin on fairgoers and hand out pamphlets about Judaism.

Asked by The Jewish Press about the chalav stam situation, Rabbi Rapoport chose not to directly respond.

“I’m not commenting,” he said. “I’m not involved with it and I have no comment to make on it.”

In an effort to determine whether the venue comes under competitive bidding stipulations, we pressed for a Request for Proposal (RFP) and were instructed by state fair officials to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request in order to receive the information. (The state fair is run by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.)

We received the following response:

“The Department of Agriculture and Markets acknowledges receipt of your recent Freedom of Information request for the RFP for a kosher vendor, all responses to the RFP and the submitted application, the application by The Oaks@Menorah Park and the acceptance letter by the state fair,” wrote Rick Arnold, the records access officer for Agriculture and Markets. “I am also looking for the financial arrangement between the state fair and The Oaks.

“The Department is in the process of searching for and obtaining these records. Once the records are reviewed, a determination as to the extent to which these records may be released will be made as soon as possible, at which time you will receive copies of the requested records after payment for copying costs, if any, is received. If one or more records will be withheld or withheld in part, a statement explaining the reason(s) for denial of the release will be provided.”

The agency has until September 12 to respond to the FOIL request. The fair runs until September 5, so an answer is likely to be forthcoming after the fair closes.

Other potential vendors that have expressed interest in bidding for the concession include Teaneck, New Jersey-based Five Star Caterers; Jonathan Katz, owner of Queens-based Kosher Sports, which operates the kosher food concession at Citi Field; and Strikly Kosher, Inc., which manages kosher vending operations at several sports venues including Yankee Stadium.

Marc Gronich

About the Author: Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.