For millions of Jews for more than seven decades, the defining act of keeping kosher was buying an Empire chicken, one of the first kosher items to be found in a supermarket freezer. Founded by Joseph Katz in the Catskills in 1938 and continued by son Murray, Empire grew to become one of the world’s leading kosher brands and America’s largest producer of poultry. After changing hands several times following the sale of the company by the Katz family in 1992 which had relocated to Mifflintown PA, Empire was acquired last week by Hain Celestial for $57.5 million.
Industry experts say that the acquisition will lead to a total rebranding of the brand, which has lost much of its traditional base over the years and has also faced stiff competition from a number of strictly kosher brands that catered to the Orthodox market. In fact, Alle Processing (also known as Meal Mart) emerged as Empire’s biggest customer and say some industry experts “has literally kept Empire afloat during some of the rough years.” In the early 2000’s say the industry experts, Empire had lost nearly $100 million.
But in the past five years, say the experts, the company has managed to hold its own, under the leadership of President Jeff Brown, due in great measure to Alle, which is the company’s biggest customer. The changing demographics in the Jewish community had a large impact on kosher, as a significant part of the kosher market shifted to the Orthodox market. Empire’s attempt to court that market met with only nominal success.
The acquisition by Hain Celestial could help the company rebrand and open new markets, the experts say. Hain Celestial, which is a leading seller of natural and organic foods, had already owned 20% percent of EK Holdings due to its earlier acquisition of Kosher Valley, the first brand of certified kosher antibiotic-free, vegetarian fed and humanely raised all natural.
Hain has already indicated its intent to expand the product offerings into deli, fresh prepared foods and other grocery categories, according to Irwin Simon, the CEO of Hain Celestial. Simon, the son of a kosher butcher from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, is well known in the kosher community, although his company has grown well beyond kosher.
Press reports put Empire’s sales in 2014 at over $100 million. Hain Celestial has more than 2,000 products that are kosher certified in its branded portfolio of natural and organic products. Many kosher food industry sources were extremely optimistic about the sale of Empire. One source told Kosher Today: “I am very optimistic that Simon will be able to bring back the spirit of the Katzes into the company, which will lead to its future success.