The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak resulted in a reality check for Steve and Denise Ellenberg, whose catering company is a staple for local Jewish celebrations.
The Jewish couple have run Overland Park-based Ellenberg Experience Catering for more than three decades, but the public health demands of COVID have brought the kibosh into the couple’s bread-and-butter business – events like kiddush lunches and wedding receptions . The kosher food truck business was also out of the question.
And fittingly for a Kansas City-based company, barbecuing proved to be their salvation. They giggle at how well their kosher smoked meat business has done.
“When we started we just called a few people we knew from the BIAV Church (Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner) to see the answer,” said Denise, “and then it was just overwhelming. The community just really embraced this. “
The Ellenbergs apparently took advantage of the pent-up demand with restaurant options off the table and a limited supply of goods from Israel with COVID-related shipping stoppages.
However, the demand is more than just local. The word got around 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 from a local rabbi about the Ellenbergs.
The company has also shipped products to Canada. They wrap the meat in shrink film, pack it in dry ice and FedEx pack the packaging overnight. Their products include brisket and chicken. They added fish, including rainbow trout and salmon, during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, barbecuing was an Ellenberg Experience specialty. From time to time the celebrants wanted it as part of their order. In a year they will already have a grill order for a bar mitzvah.
Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi, managing director of Vaad HaKashruth from Kansas City, releases one of the smokers from Ellenberg Experience Catering. The padlock ensures that the smoker stays kosher. (submitted)
At the beginning of the pandemic, Steve smoked about a dozen brisket and about three dozen chickens at a time. Now he has up to 30 breast pieces and up to 100 chickens at a time.
The Ellenbergs have two industrial smokers, as kosher rules prevent meat and fish from being cooked together.
The couple’s 22-year-old daughter, Blaire, a senior advertising major at Stern College for Women in New York City, helped out while she was home for several months attending a virtual school because of the pandemic. Since returning to school in October, she has continued to take care of online sales and public relations.
Denise’s nephew, Brian Pener, continues his role as Steve’s right-hand man. Denise, Steve and Brian take care of packaging and shipping, all under the supervision of a mashgiach (supervisor) who ensures compliance with kosher practices.
The Ellenbergs see the smoked meat as a line of products that will continue after the pandemic. They also view the effort as a charitable service for kosher watching Jews.
March 11th was the anniversary of the World Health Organization, which declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Weeks earlier, 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 the spring progressed, it became clear that Passover 2020 would be a very different matter than previous years. “At this Passover, the Seders are virtual. The plague is real, ”said CNN in an online headline.
Fast forward a year, and even with the increased availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic is still very widespread.
As that Passover approached, Steve had an idea. What if the company could build on its grilling success by koshering its meat for Passover too? Steve asked the question to Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi, executive director of Vaad HaKashruth of Kansas City.
“I took care of it,” said Rabbi Mizrahi, “and it really came down to what kind of product got into the smoker’s flesh during the year.”
The meat itself was good so the big question was the seasoning. When the rabbi examined the ingredients for friction, including the components of each ingredient, he found nothing that was “openly chametz”.
Fortunately for the Ellenbergs, there was no breadcrumbs in the rub. Had that been the case, Rabbi Mizrahi said, “I just don’t think it would have been very worthwhile for her. It would have been labor intensive for us and probably wouldn’t have worked out. “
Based on Rabbi Mizrahi’s conclusions, the Ellenbergs tweaked some of their ingredients.
For example, they made their own seasoned salt when it was found that the product they were using contained iodized salt, which raises questions about how it is processed. The Ellenbergs used natural salt.
The couple also replaced the molasses they typically use in their barbecue sauce with brown sugar and honey. Rabbi Mizrahi concluded that the molasses may have come into contact with items during processing that were not kosher for Passover.
At this point, the procedure was no different from preparing a household stove for Passover.
Steve searched the shelves and racks with a caustic cleaner and rinsed them off with a pressure washer. Then he burned off any residue by heating the smoker to about 500 degrees.
The entire process took about three hours, aided by the unusually warm weather earlier this month.
The smoked meat option for Passover is likely to be welcomed by kosher Jews, Rabbi Mizrahi said. Store-bought products are limited and that can make for a rough week. The smoked meat of the Ellenbergs is “certainly a very welcome opportunity for kosher Jews in Kansas City.”
Having a small operation like the Ellenberg Experience in this niche seemed unusual to Rabbi Mizrahi. Such a product would be more likely to be available from large companies like Meal Mart, a large supplier based in Brooklyn, New York.
Being a family affair is a disadvantage when it comes to meeting customer demand.
“We’re a small company,” said Denise. “We can’t always get the meat we ask for.” First dibs usually go to big markets like New York and Chicago, Steve said, or places in Texas and California.
But despite this caveat, the Ellenbergs had quite a year.
They stopped doing maths quickly and estimated they had smoked about 21,000 pounds of meat in the past 12 months. “Wow,” said Denise.
This story was reprinted with permission from the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (www.kcjc.com).