The Smith’s at Rampart and Lake Mead boulevards is nearly 13 miles from the Las Vegas Convention Center, but it drew enough people during a recent trade show that one of its delis went through 45 pounds of house-made egg salad in two days — about twice as much as usual.
That’s a lot of eggs to peel.
What drew them past other supermarkets is that Smith’s is home to The Kosher Experience, a 920-square-foot space that’s a source for all things kosher. Opened in the early 2000s after requests from local rabbis, it serves a segment of the community that would be hard-pressed to get their groceries elsewhere.
Rabbi Shea Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada has lived in the Las Vegas area for 27 years.
“When I came to town, there wasn’t any fresh kosher,” he said. “The only kosher meat you could get came in frozen, either from Los Angeles or Phoenix.”
Within a few years, he decided to try to change that.
“Way back then, in the mid-’90s, I approached them with this wild concept: Why don’t we have our own fresh kosher meat here in Las Vegas? Originally, none wanted to do it. Smith’s was the first one to agree to it, and then Albertsons came along. It was a slow process. I convinced them there’s a need for this.” (The smaller Kosher Marketplace is at Albertsons at Sahara Avenue and Fort Apache Road; store director Steve Weiss said it recently was expanded and more is planned, including a new oven for baking kosher breads.)
“Obviously it was a risk,” Kevin Hollowinski, Smith’s district merchandising manager, said of the delay in establishing the service. “It’s an investment.”
The Kosher Experience grew gradually. Initially, Harlig and another rabbi would supervise the cutting of meat. The store now employs six meshgihim — people who are authorized to oversee kosher operations — with a seventh on the way. Each hire is approved not only by Smith’s but also by Chabad of Southern Nevada, which provides the certification.
The 220-square-foot kosher kitchen also was added later. The operation has become a model for parent company Kroger, which used it at three Ralph’s stores in California, Hollowinski said.
Today, it’s a busy place within a very busy store. The selection of fresh kosher meats is extensive; kosher chickens also are fresh, although they’re not butchered in-house. A display with two soups — matzoh ball and beef-barley — anchors one end of the department, near the kosher rotisserie chickens. In addition to salads, the service deli carries foods such as stuffed cabbage, chicken wings, kugel, knishes and sushi made daily, plus grab-and-go and custom sandwiches, including Baruch’s Burgers.
And the bakery.
“Most supermarket bakeries are not scratch,” Hollowinski said. While some of the bakery products are packaged, many are made in-house, including challah, pastries, cakes and cookies. Custom cakes are available. They join myriad frozen, canned and other grocery items, plus wines, candies, snacks and Judaica, including menorahs, mezuzah scrolls and mezuzah holders.
Hollowinski was store manager at the department’s inception.
“I give Kevin a lot of credit for pushing it through,” Harlig said. “It took some dealing with corporate.”
And it involved a steep learning curve for Hollowinski, who isn’t Jewish.
“He became like an expert at kosher,” Harlig said. “He knows more of the slang and the terms than some Jews.”
Early on, Hollowinski turned to Jewish employees for an education.
“A lot of people ask if I’m Jewish, because I’ve learned a lot here,” he said. “I had to partly understand the religion.”
Yechiel Sudranski, kosher manager, has been with the store since 2011, and said he thinks most observant locals “know us pretty well.” As for visitors, “they’re amazed, seeing the selection we have. This is not something you expect to see in Vegas.”
Shopper Elly Edison said she was gratified to find it upon moving from California.
“I’m here at least once or twice a week,” she said. “I get deli for my restaurant, Ace of Steaks. They have everything we pretty much need. I buy wines here (for the restaurant) I can’t get from my distributor.”
Harlig said the departments fill a void.
“Some people come into town and tell me, ‘Wow, you can get more over here in Las Vegas, which doesn’t have such a large religious community, than in other metropolitan areas that do,’ ” he said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
What it means
Those who keep kosher — followers of specific Jewish laws pertaining to food and drink — only eat foods prepared certain ways or that meet certain requirements. Meats must come from animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, such as cows and sheep. Slaughtering must be precisely done and under religious supervision, and portions of meat and fowl must be bled before cooking. All involved equipment must be kosher.
Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.