Feature Article - October 2007
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Food For Thought

Simple Menu Changes for Special Diets

By Stacy St. Clair

Foods of faith

Sometimes patrons' dietary restrictions can be for religious reasons instead of health ones. In order for recreation venues to serve as a gathering place for the entire community, it's important that concession stands make an effort—and a menu—to respect their patrons' beliefs.

Catholics, for example, traditionally abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays—with some going the meatless route on Fridays throughout the year. Hindus do not eat beef, and many Buddhists maintain vegetarian diets. The simple act of including items like cheese pizza, veggie burgers, salads and chicken sandwiches can make a concession stand more appealing to customers of these faiths.

Muslims also adhere to several dietary restrictions, including sunrise-to-sunset fasting during the month of Ramadan. Many who practice the Islamic faith also refrain from eating pork. Concessionaires that sell all-beef hot dogs should make a point of publicizing that fact on menu boards so their Muslim customers recognize the viable option.

Mormons, meanwhile, shun alcohol and caffeine. When making your beverage selections, consider picking non-caffeinated choices like fruit juice, bottled water, root beer and lemon-lime sodas. (Your pregnant patrons will thank you, too!)

About 15 percent of Jews keep kosher, meaning they adhere to their religion's strict dietary laws. The levels observed vary greatly, with Orthodox Jews adhering to the toughest standards. They typically do not eat meat cooked in non-kosher kitchens or eat foods without reliable kosher certification. Conservative and Reform Jews may be more lenient in their observances. Some will eat foods cooked in non-kosher kitchens, as long as the meats are kosher.

For many years, dietary restrictions posed problems for some Jewish fans at sporting events. They could go to the ballpark and enjoy a cola, but they would only be able to watch the people next to them eat hot dogs.

"If you keep kosher and you want to take your kids out to a fair or the ballpark, you want to be able to enjoy the food and concessions wherever you go," said Yosef Levine of New Jersey-based Kosher Concessions.

Some facilities sell kosher box lunches at games, but most just shrug their shoulders at the problem. The issue has been a near-impossible situation for concessionaires. It's extremely difficult for uneducated employees and managers to adhere to the religious rules, even if the logistics make it plausible.

Packaged goods like potato chips can be certified kosher, and the major soda corporations adhere to religious laws. Anything loose such as snow-cones or hot dogs, however, needs to be handled with a heightened level of care and understanding.

"When you're talking about preparing food on the fly, providing kosher food is not something an in-house vendor can take care of," Levine said. "They are going to have to outsource it. At the very least, there has to be a knowledgeable kosher inspector available."

In 1993, Kosher Sports Inc. helped remedy the problem by creating a food service that catered to fans who observed the dietary restrictions. They currently have business agreements to run concession stands at eight big-name sporting venues. All their items are certified kosher products, and the booths have an on-site Mashgiach, who supervises and inspects the establishment to make sure it's following religious protocol. They also hold a prayer at the stand daily.

Small venues such as park districts and festivals on the East Coast have turned to Levine's Kosher Concessions, a family-owned business that operates and supplies treats. Their food items include popcorn, pretzels, cotton candy, snow-cones and hot dogs. The company—the only one of its kind in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tri-state area—provides a choice for recreation managers who want to provide kosher options, but don't have the workforce to do it.

Levine brings the equipment to the site and serves the guests himself. He handles the entire operation, so that he can ensure the food stays kosher from beginning to end of the event.

"You can't just take the machines and rent them," he said. "We have to make sure they're cleaned in a proper environment by someone who observes the Sabbath, that only certain food was used on the equipment, et cetera."

Levine started the side business two years ago to help the Jewish community. The more he works in the industry, the more he realizes the need and the interest in his services. The response has been so positive, he's considering expanding the business to areas with large Jewish populations, such as Miami, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago.