Highland Park—Even visionaries need to have a day job. Mark Bodzin, who works six days a week at the kosher deli counter at ShopRite in Livingston, is on a quest for delicious cheese. His idea: make an award-winning, aged farmstead cheddar, without animal rennet, certified kosher by the Vaad Harabonim of Massachusetts.
Bodzin, who lives in Highland Park, was born in Detroit and grew up in a kosher home in Rochester. He has also lived in Florida, Texas, Illinois, NYC and Israel. The food style he was exposed to growing up was “classic American”: lots of fish sticks, mashed potatoes and peas, with tuna noodle casserole often making an appearance on the dinner table. It wasn’t until he went traveling to Europe in 1991 that he tasted good kosher cheese.
“I walked into a shop in Paris in the 14th district, and there were racks upon racks of kosher wine, and so much kosher cheese to choose from,” he told JLBC.
In addition to tasting his way through kosher Europe, Bodzin gained experiences in food service by paying his way through college with jobs in the Catskills and the Poconos, and he eventually earned a master’s degree in hospitality and tourism. For many years, he worked as an early business incubator, helping to set up new businesses for a small group of investors.
But as he turned to incubating his own business idea, he realized through several years of research that there is a lot of unseen effort that goes into making artisan cheese. “Farmstand cheese is labor intensive; these aren’t companies [with huge industrial machines and assembly lines]. There are two people hand-dipping the cheddar in wax. They are doing everything they can to maintain the quality of the product. There’s a lot of love and attention that goes into these products that makes it so expensive. This is before you even get to the kosher component,” he said.
Still, he had his idea, and he even had his company name: Muncle Ark’s Gourmet. (Muncle Ark is a spoonerism nickname his nephews used to call their ‘Uncle Mark’). But, to make his dream a reality, he needed seed money. He had to raise at least $16,000, to sell out a day’s run of cheddar at Vermont’s Shelburne Farms, who had agreed to work with him.
Crowdfunding, with sites like Kickstarter, has, in recent years, become an effective way of gauging the marketplace for the popularity of ideas or ventures. People who back Kickstarter projects are offered tangible rewards in exchange for their pledges. In this case, Bodzin offered pounds of cheese for approximately $32 per pound purchased individually, with the price going down per pound the more people purchased. The price was almost halved per pound for those purchasing a 40 pound wheel of cheese, which, incidentally, two people did.
Bodzin told his initial supporters that the most expensive part of the process was the shipping, which doubled the cost of the first pound of cheese you order, but, he explained, the more cheese you buy, the more you save on shipping. “Another component of the cost is the kosher certification. We will have a rabbi on hand the day of production, as well as the day the cheese is processed and packaged, and this increases the product cost. And finally, Kickstarter fees will add 10% to the final cost of your cheese,” Bodzin said on his Kickstarter presentation.
Supporters were not put off by the high costs. After Bodzin floated his proposal on the site last March, he was met with only enthusiasm. There were 308 backers who altogether pledged $19,435. Many pledged funds in exchange for purchasing one, two or more pounds of the finished product, but some just participated because they supported the idea. There were six backers who pledged money who didn’t seek anything in return. “They didn’t even want cheese, some were lactose-intolerant, but they loved the idea. They pledged close to $400! That blew me away,” he said.
The experience with Kickstarter proved to Bodzin that his idea was a good one, and he knew that he had made a start. “I realized I could harness the power of crowdfunding (and the Internet) to make good kosher cheese available for myself and others,” said Bodzin.
With that in mind, he used the extra $3,000 he crowdfunded to finance a second day’s run of the cheese, so he will have farmstand cheddar to sell. The cheese was made in May at Shelburne Farms, with the vaunted Vaad Harabonim of Massachusetts overseeing the two days of production.
He is currently organizing sales channels for the extra 600 pounds of cheese, and seeking opportunities to make other cheeses, such as blue cheese, buratta and mozzarella. For more information, visit Bodzin’s Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1641000041/making-an-award-winning-aged-cheddar-cheese-kosher
By Elizabeth Kratz