The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reality check for Steve and Denise Ellenberg, whose catering company is a staple of local Jewish celebrations.
The Jewish couple has run Overland Park-based Ellenberg Experience Catering for more than three decades, but the public health requirements of COVID put the kibosh on the couple’s bread-and-butter business — events like kiddush luncheons and wedding receptions. The kosher food truck business was also out of the question.
And fittingly for a company based in the Kansas City area, barbecue turned out to be their salvation. They chuckle at how well their kosher smoked meat business has taken off.
“When we started, we just called a few people that we knew from the BIAV community (Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner) to see the response,” Denise said, “and then it has just been overwhelming. The community has just really embraced this.”
The Ellenbergs apparently tapped into pent-up demand with restaurant options off the table and a limited supply of goods from Israel with COVID-related shipping shutdowns.
But demand is more than just local. Word has spread far and wide.
The company has shipped packages to Baltimore and cities in Texas and North Carolina. “I just got a text from someone in Chicago this morning,” Steve said in a March 10 interview. The next day, he reported a call from someone in San Diego who had heard about the Ellenbergs from a local rabbi.
The company has also shipped products to Canada. They shrink wrap the meat, pack it in dry ice and then FedEx the packages overnight. Their products include brisket and chicken. They added fish during the pandemic, including rainbow trout and salmon.
Prior to the pandemic, barbecue was a specialty item for Ellenberg Experience. Every so often, celebrants would want it as part of their order. They already have a barbecue order for a Bar Mitzvah a year from now.
At the outset of the pandemic, Steve was smoking about a dozen briskets and about three dozen chickens at a time. Now, he is up to about 30 briskets and as many as 100 chickens at a time.
The Ellenbergs have two industrial smokers, since kosher rules prevent preparing meat and fish together.
The couple’s 22-year-old daughter, Blaire, who is a senior advertising major at Stern College for Women in New York City, helped out when she was home for several months doing virtual school because of the pandemic. She has continued to handle online sales and public relations since returning to school in October.
Denise’s nephew, Brian Pener, is continuing in his role as Steve’s right hand man. Denise, Steve and Brian are handling the packaging and shipping, all under the supervision of a mashgiach (supervisor) who ensures adherence to kosher practices.
The Ellenbergs see the smoked meats as a product line that will continue after the pandemic. They also view the effort as a community service to kosher-observant Jews.
March 11 marked the year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. Weeks before that, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed the first person-to-person spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
As springtime continued, it was clear that Passover 2020 was going to be a much different affair than previous years. “This Passover, the seders are virtual. The plague is real,” CNN declared in an online headline.
Fast forward a year, and even with increased availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic is still very much with us.
So as this Passover approached, Steve had an idea. What if the company could build on its barbecue success by making its meats kosher for Passover as well? Steve posed the question to Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi, executive director of Vaad HaKashruth of Kansas City.
“I looked into it,” Rabbi Mizrahi said, “and really what it boiled down to was what kind of product goes into the meat in the smoker during the year.”
The meat itself was fine, so the big question was the seasoning. When the rabbi examined the ingredients for the rub, including even the component parts of each ingredient, he found nothing that was “overtly chametz.”
Thankfully for the Ellenbergs, the rub did not include bread crumbs. Had that been the case, Rabbi Mizrahi said, “I just don’t think it would have been very worthwhile for them. It would have been labor intensive for us, and it probably would not have worked out.”
Based on Rabbi Mizrahi’s conclusions, the Ellenbergs tweaked some of their ingredients.
For instance, they created their own seasoning salt when the product they used turned out to have iodized salt, which raised questions because of its processing. The Ellenbergs used natural salt.
The couple also substituted brown sugar and honey for the molasses they usually use in their barbecue sauce. Rabbi Mizrahi concluded that the molasses could have come into contact with items during processing that were not kosher for Passover.
At that point, the procedure was not unlike preparing a home oven for Passover.
Steve scoured the shelves and racks with a caustic cleaner, and rinsed it off with a power washer. Then he burned off any residue by heating the smoker to about 500 degrees.
The whole process took about three hours, aided by the unseasonably warm weather earlier this month.
Having the smoked meat option for Passover will likely be welcomed by Jews who keep kosher, Rabbi Mizrahi said. Store-bought products are limited, and that can make for a tough week. The Ellenbergs’ smoked meat, he said, is “certainly a very welcome opportunity for kosher-observant Jews in Kansas City.”
Having a small operation like Ellenberg Experience in this niche seemed unusual to Rabbi Mizrahi. A product like this would more likely be available from big companies like Meal Mart, a major provider based in Brooklyn, New York.
Being a family affair is a disadvantage when it comes to meeting customer demand.
“We’re a small company,” Denise said. “We can’t always get the meat we request.” First dibs usually go to big markets like New York and Chicago, Steve said, or places in Texas and California.
But even with that limitation, the Ellenbergs have had quite a year.
Stopping to do some quick math, they estimated they had smoked about 21,000 pounds of meat within the past 12 months. “Wow,” Denise said.
This story was reprinted with permission of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (www.kcjc.com)