In the aisles at the Genuardi's Family Market in Wynnewood, 35-year-old Ellen Novick's shopping cart was stocked with kosher-for-Passover standards such as cooking wine, matzah-ball soup mix, cheeses, and cake and brownie mixes.
"I tried to look at all the flyers and see where the best deals are, but it's all so expensive," lamented the mother of four, who in the past has gone all the way to the ShopRite in Cherry Hill, N.J., to find deals.
While about 80 percent of her shopping is done, she said, she's still holding out for items such as matzah because she expects prices to drop as the holiday gets closer.
Novick and her family attend seders both nights at the home of relatives, which helps cut down on expenses, but she said that she still has to watch how the cost of the holiday adds up. "I just try to remember what worked last year — what I made and what everyone wanted," she said.
For many, the cost of keeping kosher for Passover is a thorny issue every year.
Yet with the nation mired in a recession and with general food prices on the rise, Pesach 5769 seems poised to stretch the budgets — and the patience — of shoppers even more than in the past.
There's just no avoiding the cost of the holiday, said Diane Carroll as she roamed the aisles of the Acme supermarket in Narberth. Every year means starting over, and no matter the expense, "I still need to buy the margarine to be able to bake, I still need the mayonnaise for the tuna fish — I can't get around it."
But the 51-year-old, like many others, is watching to make sure she doesn't buy so much that she ends up with leftovers. She planned to buy fewer cake mixes and snack foods, like potato chips — items that might well last beyond eight days.
One way that some shoppers are coping this year is by spacing out their shopping. Many reported that they were gradually purchasing Passover items a few bags at a time rather than in one large haul, both to shop around for deals at different stores and to avoid spending such a large sum at any one time.
Batya Warshowsky, 44, of Wynnewood said that she was spacing out her shopping between two credit-card billing cycles, so as not to be paying for it in a single lump sum.
The stay-at-home mother recalled spending about $500 for Passover last year — an amount she called "astronomically high" — and said that she expects that this year will be much the same. She plans to host a seder for 16 people (her maximum allowed, she explained, because that's how many seder dishes she has), and noted that she'll spend the most on meat and produce.
But other, pre-packaged items are pricey, too. Macaroons, Warshowsky pointed out by way of example, used to cost about a dollar; today, they can cost as much as $3.50.
"I find it a bit disheartening to see that for such a vibrant Jewish community that we have, that Passover food should be so expensive," she opined.
'Through the Roof'
Some of that expense is because the price of raw materials "went through the roof" over the past 18 months, according to Streit's sales and marketing manager, Aaron Gross, who offered the recent upshot in flour prices (50 percent to 70 percent) as an example. Because the business end of production is completed the summer prior to Passover, Gross noted that this year's prices are a reflection of last summer's economic conditions.
The price on the shelf is set by retailers, although manufacturers often provide some sort of suggested retail price, according to Don O'Brien, merchandise and sales manager for ethnic marketing at Acme.
Store prices, chimed in Gross, all depend "on how aggressive the retailers want to be to fight over the customer. They go into bidding wars and use matzah as their No. 1 item to fight with."
He said that matzah (and other kosher-for-Passover standards) often serve as loss leaders for retailers, who cut the price of such popular items to bring shoppers in, with the hope that they'll purchase other goods like meat or produce.
Kosher-for-Passover products also rely on different ingredients that affect the price, such as sugar instead of corn syrup or matzah meal instead of flour, explained Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the Orthodox Union. He said that separate shipping, labeling and other kosher-production controls affect the cost as well.
For folks like Jan Frisch of Cheltenham, tradition plays a large role in their shopping, including buying family favorites. Holding a box of rainbow cake that she said her daughter loves, she said with a laugh, "It's really expensive and it doesn't taste very good, but it's tradition."
For some, it seems that the cost of the holiday has become a tradition in and of itself, right along with the bitter herbs and lamb shanks. Frisch, 54, remembers her own parents complaining about prices when she was growing up.
Passover brings with it other expenses as well, including seder preparation, purchasing kosher household products (mouthwash or detergent, for example) and, perhaps most importantly for families, buying to suit a variety of tastes.
"I'd have a revolution on my hands if I brought home the wrong kind of macaroons," regardless of the price, said Susan Manstein of Rydal.
One expense that many families deal with is providing a variety of school lunches throughout the long holiday, although Manstein, 46, counted herself exempt from that, since her three children attend Jewish day schools, which will be closed.
According to Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom Marketing Consulting and publisher of the industry newsletter Kosher Today, kosher food is a $12.5 billion industry, with 78 percent of American Jews observing Passover.
Lubinsky wrote in an e-mail that the industry may suffer a bit, but changes in the market haven't been uniform; New York seems to be business as usual, while customers in other markets "are being much more frugal. They are shopping from lists and making an effort not to overbuy."
Shoppers, he added, are also relying more on discounts and clipping coupons.
According to Amy Krulik, executive director of the Jewish Relief Agency, the high prices associated with the holiday make it particularly difficult for those in need.
"I think they feel the pinch, especially at Passover, because there's not anything to trade — it's not 'I won't get Product A, I'll get Product B because it's on sale.' There's not too many choices," she said.
The irony is that these days there are more choices in Passover food than ever before — for those who can afford them. Frozen kosher buffalo wings, pizzas, even a pseudo white bread — the past decade has seen an explosion in the number and variety of kosher for Passover products.
But, said Elefant of the Orthodox Union, just because it's there doesn't mean you have to have it.
"I grew up in a world where we didn't have bagels and pizza for Passover, and those are expensive items," he said. "But I'm not convinced that you can't observe Passover without having pizza or bagels."
Price Over Loyalty
During the rest of the year, brand loyalty is a typical thing — shoppers who swear by Pepsi over Coke, Folgers over Maxwell House or Crest over Colgate.
But in the kosher-for-Passover aisles, many reported that the brand took a backseat to the price.
Whether it's Streit's, Manischewitz or any other company, "I'd pick the cheaper one," Anne Fassler said as she searched the shelves at the ShopRite in Northeast Philadelphia.
Those interviewed predicted that their expenses would range anywhere from $150 to $1,000. Most expected to spend between $300 and $500, though amounts varied according to family size, and whether or not they were hosting large seders.
Steve Singer of Langhorne said that he only buys kosher food during Passover, and usually spends less than $200 on the holiday. With a cart that included chocolate-dipped matzah and $15 cuts of kosher meat, it adds up fast.
Still, he's able to spend less than some because he's buying for comparatively few — Singer and his son will hold an informal seder together, rather than undertake a larger endeavor.
Nevertheless, the 55-year-old said that he "wouldn't sacrifice the holiday for the price."
That seemed to be the bottom line for most: Yes, it's expensive, but you do it anyway, because it's Passover.
At the checkout line, Diane Carroll unloaded her selections and watched the numbers go up as her purchases were bagged: glatt-kosher ground beef, pizza, buffalo wings, instant mashed potatoes, muffins, cereal — all kosher for Passover, of course.
The final tally? Just a hair under $95.
"This is just a drop in the bucket," she exclaimed. "I didn't even buy anything yet!"