The spring of 2012 was a tough one for those who appreciate a good, chocolaty homemade dessert after a meat meal. Food retailer Trader Joe’s brutal announcement that May — that its popular pareve chocolate chips would thereafter be certified kosher/dairy — sent local bakers into a frenzy.
Because the bags sold by Shop Rite are also pareve, things in Baltimore weren’t as bad as in Pittsburgh, where people were buying up the chocolate morsels by the case from two Trader Joe’s locations and freezing them for an anticipated string of proverbial rainy days. But the work of Pittsburgher Chana Shusterman has nevertheless benefited kosher bakers here.
Back in 2012, Shusterman ordered four cases of the Trader Joe’s chocolate chips and shared them with about 10 friends. At the time, she was optimistic that consumer pressure on the chain would convince the retailer to make whatever changes were necessary for its venerated brand of chocolate chips to qualify again for the kosher/pareve certification.
But when that didn’t happen, Shusterman took matters into her own hands.
Finding no reasonably priced, high-quality vegan and pareve chocolate chips in the local market, the high school teacher and software business owner set out on a mission to fix the problem.
“During that first year, I really thought there would be availability somewhere,” Shusterman said. “But when there wasn’t, I did some investigating. I looked into who were the top chocolate manufacturers, and I was able to taste a few brands.”
She was looking for a dairy-free, allergen-free chocolate, with no fillers and a high percentage of cocoa.
Once she found the right chocolate, she got to work researching bagging and printing companies and kosher certification entities.
The result: California Gourmet-brand vegan, gluten-free chocolate chips with a 45 percent cocoa content and certified kosher/pareve by the OK. A 10-ounce bag goes for $2.89.
The California Gourmet chocolate chips are available at two-dozen stores in six states, including Seven Mile Market and Pomegranate in Brooklyn, N.Y., and can be ordered online at californiagourmet.net.
“The taste is excellent,” Shusterman said. “They are very smooth, and good for melting.”
Lila Weiss, owner of Murray Avenue Kosher in Shusterman’s home town, is happy to be carrying the new product, she said.
“You know how some chocolate chips taste waxy?” Weiss said. “These are chocolaty.”
The product, which has been on her shelves for about four weeks, is “moving nicely,” Weiss said, adding that the other brands of chocolate chips she
carries are “a little more expensive.”
While the Shop Rite brand of pareve chocolate chips is available at Seven Mile — and is somewhat less expensive than Shusterman’s product — California Gourmet seems to be attracting buyers who have been missing the Trader Joe’s brand, said Moshe Boehm, the general manager of the store.
“Trader Joe’s had a following,” Boehm said. “There are many, many other chocolate chips out there. But for those people who liked the Trader Joe’s chocolate chips this is a big deal. I’ve heard from a few people that this replaces Trader Joe’s. These are definitely serving a need. They are definitely something that people are interested in.”
For Rivky Bukiet of Baltimore, known, she said, for her homemade chocolate chip cookies, California Gourmet chocolate chips have been just what she had been looking for since the Trader Joe’s product went dairy.
“I couldn’t find a substitute, something of good quality and pareve,” she said.
When she got her first taste of California Gourmet chocolate chips at her sister’s house in New York, “she couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Thrilled to discover they were being sold in Baltimore, she is now using them in all her baking, from pumpkin muffins to peanut butter balls to her famous chocolate chips cookies.
“I’m really excited to share this with all my friends,” she said. “I know when people taste this, they’ll want more.”
Toby Tabachnick is senior writer at The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, Pa.