The Kosher Chocolate Wars

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Photo by Mykl Roventine/Flickr CC

This is the second installment in a series about chocolate from Jeffrey Yoskowitz. The first, A Seder Different From All Other Seders, confronted the reality of Passover without Barton's Chocolates after its parent company went out of business earlier this year.

Beyond its indelible mark on collective Jewish memory and its creation of a successful kosher brand, Barton's played a key role in shaping the modern, billion-dollar kosher food industry. It was specifically the battle between Barton's and Barricini that challenged the nascent kosher industry and its largest player, the Orthodox Union (OU).

By 1950, Barricini was enviously eyeing Barton's monopolization of the Jewish purse. The company applied for kosher certification from the OU's burgeoning kosher food division. Barton's--having billed itself as the "Jewish company" and having already rejected OU certification, because too many demands and arbitrary high standards would force Stephen Klein, the founder of the company, to restructure his facilities--reacted aggressively.

Kosher certification is a service provided by several Jewish organizations in America whereby trained rabbinic authorities inspect the ingredients and processes food companies use. The OU was the first and the largest certifying agency, whose goal was to define what is kosher for the modern, mass-manufactured food industry. Stamps of approval, hekshers, are placed on the packages. They aren't cheap.

Certain lay leaders of the OU were more focused on growth, on bringing kosher food to the mainstream--revitalizing Judaism through the stomach.

Barton's rejection of certification frightened the OU. "If it isn't a box of Barton's, is it right for a Jewish Home?" went the company's slogan, emphasizing the fact that it was a Sabbath-observing company with visible Jewish character. The slogan implicitly challenged the OU for certifying a company that was neither. Klein hired an independent rabbi from upstate New York, a family friend, to supply kosher certification for Barton's.

The smear campaign against Barricini and the OU led to in-fighting between the business-oriented Kashrut Commission and the Rabbinical Council of America, the OU's rabbinical arm, over the future of kosher food in America. The real dilemma was that Barricini franchise stores were open on the Sabbath, even though the owner of the brand was Jewish. Certain lay leaders of the OU were more focused on growth, on bringing kosher food to the mainstream--revitalizing Judaism through the stomach--and supported Barricini. The Religious Council was focused on overall religious observance, and supported Barton's.

Without the approval of the Religious Council, the OU gave its certification to Barricini, deciding that technically the franchise stores were owned by a corporation, not individuals, and that they would only hold the processing plant to its Sabbath observing standards. It was a ruling relevant to the modern day.

Barton's continued to resist the OU, and continued to compete with Barricini for the Jewish market. Barricini did siphon off Barton's sales, but failed to attain a significant share of the market. And Barton's finally gave in and sought OU certification.

The OU could not pass up the opportunity to place its stamp on Barton's, one of the most important Jewish companies in the U.S. And yet doing so would nearly guarantee Barton's full dominance in the market. Not used to making certifications that would determine the outcome of business, the OU ultimately decided to give its certification to any business that requests it and is willing to comply with the OU's standards--a strategy that helped the OU grow tremendously in the following decades.

A Passover, and a World, Post-Barton's

Even with the death of Barton's, there will be no chocolate shortages for Passover.

"From all over the world there's better chocolate," Joan Nathan, cookbook author and Jewish food authority, unsentimentally describes the situation. "In a way that's a good thing. At one point Barton's was the only player. That's no longer the case."

There's certainly hope, at least among the Klein family and nostalgic American Jews, that Barton's will be revived, though it seems unlikely in the near future.

Now that corporations have bought many of the family-owned kosher businesses, Passover shopping is hardly an inspiring, almost spiritual expression of one's identity, as it may have been for some in the era of Barton's Bonbonniere.

When American Safety Razor bought the company, at the start of the 1980s--and, it hoped, access to the Jewish market with it--the company clung to its brand recognition from the glory years, while slowly reducing the brand's quality.

"I'm better off without it and so are my children," Hasia Diner says, largely because of the sugar content, she says. We can only hope we all are too.