Yaakov Levi is fixated on working his way to the top of the food chain in Charm City.
The Israeli native, who was introduced to the glatt-kosher meat industry by his father, quickly became an integral part of the family business at 8 years old. From a humble beginning, where he worked in the slaughterhouse and cleaned kishkes, to founding Atara Foods in downtown Baltimore, Levi is all too familiar with the kashering process.
“I started from the bottom,” said Levi, referring to the days he spent at his father’s slaughterhouse in Nahariya. “I know the meat business.”
His meat processing and packing plant, located near the corner of Bonaparte and Sherwood avenues near Clifton Park, opened its doors in February. The 20,000-square-foot facility processes 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of meat each day, Levi said.
In addition to selling the traditional forequarter meat to American Jewish consumers, Atara Foods also sells hindquarter meat — including filet mignon, top sirloin roast and New York strip steak — and that’s what makes it unique. Although not a rarity in Israel and parts of Europe, hindquarter meat is difficult to come by in the American kosher scene.
“What Jacob wanted to do was bring that to the market here,” said Binyomin Ansbacher, who has served as the company’s Star-K mashgiach since it set up shop in Baltimore. “We’re offering a new product to the kosher market.”
And that product has opened doors to shoppers looking to purchase tender meat with a rich taste in the local area.
Levi said his prices match those of the nationwide chain Omaha Steaks.
Since there’s nonkosher fat in the hindquarters, the kashering process is a delicate one, requiring immense skill and precision. But with Levi’s vast experience, the Atara Foods processing manager can remove the forbidden parts, including the sciatic nerve, with ease.
“We start at 6:30 a.m., and we finish when we finish,” said Levi, who is also an ordained rabbi.
Freshly slaughtered cattle strapped to metal ceiling hooks added a pop of color to the white-walled facility on July 26. Even during the early-morning hours, workers clad in hair nets, aprons and gloves maintained their focus, slicing chunks of kosher meat at their work stations.
Levi is a ninth-generation traiborer, a Yiddish term referring to the removal of nonkosher fats and veins from meat during the kashering process. Shortly after moving to the U.S. in the early ’90s, he began a 20-year career overseeing the certification for Philly Foods.
It didn’t take long for Levi to realize that filet mignon — “the crown jewel of meat” — was practically a nonexistent option for kashrut-observing Jews in the U.S. From that void, he developed a long-term goal to restore glory to the market, which is where the company’s Hebrew name Atara, or crown, comes from.
While Sephardim give the all-clear when it comes to traiboring hindquarters, Ashkenazim do just the opposite. And since American kosher certification agencies are typically supervised by Ashkenazi Jews, the lack of hindquarter meat isn’t surprising.
“The thinking is there’s enough meat available from the forequarter cuts that the hindquarters can be sold to non-Jewish butchers without any financial loss,” Ansbacher said.
It’s not that Ashkenazim believe the entire hindquarter to be treif, as put by Ansbacher, but rather that many haven’t been properly trained to kasher the meat.
“The hindquarters provide a different kind of meat, one with a lot of flavor,” he said. “For instance, filet mignon is very lean. It’s actually the least worked muscle in the cow, so it’s very tender.”
To ensure that strict adherence to this Ashkenazi custom doesn’t deter buyers, the company has two separate kosher certifications, one for forequarters and one for hindquarters. The former is certified by Star-K, which doesn’t certify hindquarter meat, and is under Atara Foods. The latter is certified by Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Chaim of Badatz Mekor Haimunder and is under an Atara sub-company called Tender.
Although processed in the same facility, the meats are packaged at different times using separate utensils.
At the moment, the high-end meat is processed, packaged and shipped to supermarkets in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., areas on a weekly basis. But like most business owners, Levi has dreams of expansion.
His goal is to be operating at full capacity by mid-August, which means increasing the number of employees from 16 to 35 and ordering new equipment, such as a meat-salting machine and conveyer belt.
Thus far, Levi’s high-end products have made their way to restaurants, catered events and even a weekly farmers’ market in Bethesda, Md. Buyers can also ship meat to their doorstep or drop by the facility to pick it up themselves.
“All they have to do is call,” Levi said. “No order is too big or too small.”