A Christian chocolate-maker honors his Jewish roots.
At a glance, that Askinosie chocolate bar sitting on the shelf at Eli’s Manhattan looks a lot like all the other organic, small-batch foodstuffs so in vogue these days. But the Askinosie product has a far richer backstory than your average pricey, artisanal sweet — starting with the heksher.
In June, the family-run chocolate company, founded in the heartland town of Springfield, Mo., in 2007, received kosher certification from the Kansas City Va’ad HaKashrut, something founder Shawn Askinosie pursued even though he is Christian.
He has Jewish ancestry, though: his paternal grandfather, Samuel, was a Russian-born Jew who was raised in Argentina and immigrated to New York, where he and Hungarian-born Ida met, married and raised a Jewish family.
“With that being my family, [kosher certification] was important to me, and I really wish my grandparents were here to see that,” Askinosie said.
Ninety-eight percent of Askinosie Chocolate products are now certified pareve, dairy and DE, which indicates that the product does not contain dairy, but was made using equipment that processes dairy.
Certifying Askinosie kosher was easy because the ingredients used in the chocolate are all organic and unprocessed, said Mendel Segal, the executive director of Kansas City Va’ad HaKashruth.
“It’s actually ideal because of the purity of their process. A lot of those types of ingredients are by nature kosher when they come in in their raw form,” Segal said.
Segal said that more and more of Missouri’s specialty food products are becoming kosher certified, and Askinosie Chocolate is one of a few Missouri businesses, such as Date Lady and Strawberry Hill Povitica, that have made the move to expand their market by going kosher.
Askinosie’s products are sold online and in over 600 stores in the United States, including Chelsea Market Baskets and 21 other locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
In addition to his heksher, Askinosie shares a socially conscious mission with other artisanal Jewish food producers, such as KOL Foods, an organic meat purveyor, and The Gefilteria, which celebrate Ashkenazi culture by reviving traditional foodstuffs.
Guided tours of Askinosie’s Missouri factory fund “Chocolate University,” a program that aims to inspire local elementary and middle school students “about social entrepreneurship and a world beyond Springfield,” Askinosie said. “We incorporate what they’re studying to what our factory has to offer, so they feel like they are a part of our business.”
Additionally, during alternate summers Askinosie takes a group of about 13 high school students entering their junior or senior year to Tanzania for about 10 days. Past groups have drilled a well and equipped the local school with books, laptop computers and software. Prior to traveling to Tanzania, the group spends a week at Drury University learning about Swahili culture and history, cocoa beans and the process of making chocolate.
He’s also set up programs to help feed children in the communities where he buys his beans. At Mwaya Secondary School in Tanzania, for example, students tend to eat only one meal a day, so Askinosie sells Tanzanian rice online to support a lunch program. Each $16.50 bag sold buys 220 lunches. He does something similar for a school in the Philippines, selling $10 packages of Tableya, Filipino hot chocolate, which each pay for about 220 meals.
“It proves that really small businesses like ours can be a part of a solution that seems overwhelming when you look at them in totality,” he said.
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