Seven Mile Market in Pikesville launched what's thought to be the nation's largest kosher supermarket Tuesday, offering shoppers kosher versions of almost everything they could find in a conventional grocery store.
Everything, that is, but bugs in the salad bar. And baby seahorses in the sushi.
"People are not aware their salads have quite a few insects in them," said Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld of STAR-K Kosher Certification, explaining that the newly relocated and expanded market has a kosher inspector who checks all salad greens for bugs.
Neither Jews nor gentiles want insects in their lettuce, but Kurcfeld said Jews want them out for reasons more powerful than the ick factor: "Because the Torah says so."
A similar effort is made at the manufacturing level to ensure the seaweed sold at the store for sushi does not have bits of baby seahorses or shrimp in it, he said.
With these critter-eradication efforts behind the scenes, Seven Mile Market could pass for any gleaming suburban grocery store but for the multitudes of shoppers in yarmulkes and headscarves.
The market, with 55,000 square feet of space, occupies a former Safeway store at 201 Reisterstown Road, near its original 28,000-square-foot location on Seven Mile Lane.
"They're by far the largest kosher supermarket in the U.S.," said Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today, an online publication that monitors trends in the kosher food and beverage industry. He said the next largest is Rockland Kosher Supermarket in Monsey, N.Y., with about 30,000 square feet.
The original Seven Mile Market catered to Baltimore area's large Jewish population — it numbers about 100,000 — with specialty items that could not be found elsewhere. The new location offers that plus all the amenities of a full-service supermarket.
There's a floral department, bakery, fish counter, meat department and pharmacy. All of the over-the-counter medications in the pharmacy have been certified by STAR-K, ensuring that there are no gel caps or products with glycerin, which could be derived from non-kosher animal sources.
The store also will have a cafe, which is expected to open in about a week.
Some of Seven Mile's 17 aisles are devoted to natural and gluten-free foods that were not available in kosher form even a few years ago. Gluten-free challah. Spelt-flour chocolate chip cookies. Even Utz potato chips, which didn't offer a kosher product when Seven Mile owner Hershel Boehm opened the original market in 1988.
"It's really truly amazing how sophisticated the palate is," Kurcfeld said, standing in an aisle with kosher tofu and flax cereal. "There's nothing anywhere like this. It's just unreal."
Boehm aimed to open his store by summer but ran into some delays that he described as "little hiccups here and there."
"Thank God, everything seems to be going good," Boehm said as he surveyed shoppers filling their carts Tuesday morning. "We tried to make it pleasant for the customer."
Converting the Safeway space to a kosher one was no simple feat, one chiefly accomplished with elbow grease. Refrigerated cases and shelves had to be cleaned so there were no traces of non-kosher foods. Bakery ovens had to be heated to their highest temperature for 45 minutes to an hour. Certain things had to be tossed, such as metal trays on which something like ham-and-cheese sandwiches might have set.
"This is very difficult to kosherize," said Kurcfeld, who oversaw the process.
Customers seemed to think it was worth the effort.
"We're very excited," said Devorah Sopher of Pikesville, who was shopping with three of her four young children, one of them taken with a bag of frozen chicken nuggets shaped like different animals. "Lots more space, lots more flavors of everything."
"They have a very beautiful selection of fruits and vegetables," said Sonia Hymer of Pikesville, a retired bookkeeper shopping with her husband, Tobias.
Hymer was also pleased to see friendly staffers from the old store at the new one.
"But," she deadpanned, "they're not giving me anything for nothing,"