Life is bittersweet for kosher consumers in Seattle.
On May 9, the kosher certification agency OK announced that Trader Joe’s chocolate chips, which it had previously certified parve, or acceptable for a milk or meat meal, would now be certified dairy.
Kosher certifications frequently undergo reevaluation, but outcry swept the country. A protest page emerged on Facebook, a petition called “Trader Joe’s: Keep the Chocolate Chips Pareve!” on Change.org has received almost 6,000 signatures, and on May 23 the news made the cover of the Wall Street Journal.
Seattle was not immune. Kosher-observant Jews flocked to the area Trader Joe’s stores to stockpile what’s left of the parve chocolate chips, buying dozens of bags at a time.
Francine Birk, who runs a cottage kosher baking business in Seward Park, bought 153 bags on just one run and has ventured out to Capitol Hill, Ballard and Tacoma locations of the grocery store.
“The Trader Joe’s chocolate chips melt well. They make great ganache. It tastes a certain way. It melts a certain way,” said Birk. “I’m going to have to work around that unless they change it back.” Furthermore, she said, other brands are just “not noshable” in the same way. She estimates her supply will meet her baking needs through the High Holidays.
Kosher chocolate lovers rely on the Trader Joe’s brand because they can use the morsels for desserts served after meat meals. (Most kashrut observers need to wait six hours after a meat meal before consuming dairy.) According to an ambiguous statement by the OK, the parve-dairy switch results from a “change in the level of monitoring at the facility.” The koshering organization says it is working with the manufacturer to remedy the situation. The recipe for the chips has not changed.
“At this point there isn’t enough information to evaluate what happened,” said Rabbi Moshe Kletenik of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath and the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, the local koshering agency. “In the interim, we have to take the word of the kosher supervising agency.”
Normally, the Trader Joe’s branch on Capitol Hill goes through a case of chocolate chips, 48 bags’ worth, every two or three days, with holiday sales spiking around one case a day. According to a manager who identified himself as Josh G., “in the last two weeks roughly 100 bags a day” have been sold, with two days topping out at 300 bags. At the time of this writing, 10 cases remained.
Though the petitioners on Change.org include advocates for vegan and lactose-free products, Josh said that concerns and complaints mainly come from kosher consumers. “We get phone calls all the time,” he said, in particular from a local Jewish retirement facility.
“I have been showing up at Trader Joe’s since we heard the news, requesting whatever parve chips they are willing to part with,” said Esther Friend, administrator at The Summit at First Hill, via email. “Our residents are big fans of our outrageous chocolate chip cookies during our 3 p.m. daily cookie hour.”
The retirement facility’s baker produces six-dozen cookies a day, she said.
Others are willing to switch brands, though not without a price. Robert Beiser, Repair the World director at Hillel at the University of Washington, said the weekly Challah for Justice program will switch from Trader Joe’s to Sunspire chocolate chips, which are parve and fair trade, for its chocolate-chip challah.
“We’ve been looking all year to find a good substitute, because we want fair-trade chocolate in all of our challah,” said Beiser, who has helped spearhead a campaign to promote fair-trade, slavery-free chocolate among Jews in Seattle. More than half of the world’s chocolate production involves child slavery.
A 10-ounce bag of Sunspire chips retails at $5.89 per bag — a far cry from Trader Joe’s $2.29 for 12 ounces. By buying in bulk, Beiser said Hillel will be paying $4.42 per bag.
But he downplayed the price jump. “Now there will be Challah for Justice with even more justice in it.”
Executives at Trader Joe’s have not disclosed to store-bound staff if they’ll overturn their decision to switch the chips’ kashrut status.
“Right now it is completely out of our hands,” Josh, the manager at Trader Joe’s, said.
If they don’t, said Friend, “it’s a great niche market and someone, somewhere, will capitalize on the void — you can be sure we will track them down.”
Until then, the rush will continue while supplies last.
“People are dealing in chocolate chips now,” said Birk. “It’s so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”