Sounds like fun, I thought, when I was asked to check out an ice cream cone manufacturing plant in Montreal
Rabbi Menachem Lefkowitz*, Kemach’s mashgiach and my contact person, assured me that the drive to the plant shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes — tops. There was a hitch, though. I had to come that very day, at a specific time, because this was their final production day; the factory wasn’t scheduling a new kosher output for Kemach till months later. Talk about pressure.
Naturally, this assigned time was at the height of Montreal’s traffic. Inching my way along the Metropolitan expressway, a trip I hadn’t taken since before the pandemic, the half-hour drive took me an hour and a half. Rabbi Lefkowitz was pretty anxious, as well.
“The owner has been here since 5:30 in the morning. He wants to leave already,” he told me over the phone.
When I finally arrived, I was surprised at how few vehicles were parked outside the building. Had everyone left? But inside, the place was packed, and production was working at full speed.
Given the lateness of the hour, Rabbi Lefkowitz rushed me to the office, where he handed me a lab coat and hairnet to cover my sheitel.
Flour and Batters
Once I was dressed in compliance with regulations, Rabbi Lefkowitz hurried me toward the factory door. He threw it open, and I was catapulted into a different kind of universe: a noisy, hot environment — just a taste of what was to come.
What first strikes a new visitor is a gigantic sack of flour hanging from the ceiling two stories high, as well as pails of batter, each colored differently: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and natural.
“The batters all taste alike,” Rabbi Lefkowitz shouted over the noise. “It’s just the colors that are different.”
The batter consists of flour, canola oil, water, sugars, salt, flavoring, and soya lecithin, a recipe that hasn’t changed since the plant opened over 60 years ago.
“No eggs?” I ask, shouting back.
“Companies haven’t used real eggs since forever,” he answers.
The company supplies all the ingredients: Kemach is fortunate that it didn’t need to change any of them for the cones to become mehadrin kosher. However, there are other issues to consider.
“Given the huge amount of flour and this heat, how do you ensure that the flour is bug-free?” I want to know.
“Besides making sure that it’s fresh, I check a plateful every day,” he yells.
Astonishingly, we can’t take fresh flour for granted in food manufacturing plants. Rabbi Lefkowitz recalls one factory he worked with years ago (not this one!) that checked their flour only once every year and a half! “Don’t worry,” the controller told him after he pointed out the tiny creatures luxuriating in their bug-friendly environment. “We’ve included them in the protein calculation.”
The next phase of my journey brought me into the beast’s belly, where the real action occurs: a vast space filled with industrial-sized ovens that roughly resemble printing presses. I watch their metallic teeth bite into puddles of batter, slurped inside by metallic tongues while flaming fires transform them from semi-liquid to solid within seconds. (Don’t forget about the semi-liquid stage, which is a crucial factor in the halachos relating to ice cream cones.)
Workers wearing masks and hairnets stand diligently on guard. There are between 30 and 40 of them per shift, overseeing production and quality control. The machines need to be perfectly programmed: If the ovens are too hot, the cones burn, too cold, and they don’t keep their shape. Nothing escapes the eagle eyes of this crew. Cones with the slightest defect are discarded into gigantic blue bins standing at the side.
There is no waste: These discards are compacted and sold to farmers to feed animals. “This feed pays for their garbage disposal,” Rabbi Lefkowitz’s explains.
Times have certainly changed. I had no idea that there were so many types of cones. There are cup cones in various sizes and colors — these are the ones with flat bottoms — and sugar cones and waffle cones, and even bowls.
Despite the heat and noise, watching the production is fascinating. There are two types of machines: those with top and bottom molds produce the cup cones, while those with a single mold produce the sugar and waffle cones and bowls. When it comes to the cup cones, electric spouts pour batter halfway up the bottom mold; a top mold then immerses itself into the bottom mold, lifting the batter and forming the shape. The fires then “bake” or “cook” the cones. An electric arm automatically cuts off any extra pieces that form at the top. I watch a batch of tiny, exceedingly cute cones (three-inch) taking shape and emerging from their inner sanctum, fully formed. My mind immediately thinks of creative ways of using them.
The sugar and waffle cones have thicker batters, and they cook them differently. Electric arms splash puddles of batter onto the continually moving surface where metallic presses — like clothes irons — flatten and cook them into extended disks called patties. These patties then wrap around cone-shaped molds while hot, to form sugar cones. In contrast, waffle-designed metallic presses flatten the waffle cones, giving them their distinctive woven look.
As the cones flow onto the conveyor belts, they cool down and harden. At this stage, their fate is determined: Will they make it into the corrugated boxes and the stores, or will they serve another environmental purpose?
The cones that meet the company’s standards are shoved along by automatic fingers that push one into the other in six-piece batches, wrap them in cellophane, and move them into boxes. The entire process from batter to packaging takes under a minute!
So much for the production. What about the kashrus that distinguishes Kemach’s products from the other batches? Rabbi Lefkowitz points to squiggly marked scotch tape covering the many buttons that control the ovens. Those are Rabbi Lefkowitz’s markings, and they keep the products kosher.
“Every button is tied down with tape — front, sides, back. If anyone touches the tape, it tears. So, no one can manipulate anything on the machine without my realizing it,” the Rabbi says.
Why is this necessary? The mashgiach must turn on and turn off the ovens himself for a product to be deemed kosher. Rabbi Lefkowitz, therefore, arrives at the start of the kosher production run at about 6:00 a.m. He then closes and opens the ovens, which worked all night to produce batches of nonkosher cones. From that point on, whatever they make is Kemach’s. Remember, in this particular factory, all the ingredients are always kosher.
Making sure that a Jew turns the ovens off and on is extremely important because the halachah doesn’t allow Jews to eat food cooked by non-Jews, which is called bishul akum. The only foods we may eat produced by a non-Jew are those we can eat raw, such as fruits and vegetables, and those considered not choshuv enough to serve at a king’s table, such as potato chips. Bread or other baked goods fall into another category called pas palter (factory-baked); these are foods baked by non-Jews in factories, which Jews are permitted to eat except on Shabbos and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
So, are ice cream cones considered bishul akum or pas palter? It’s hard to decide. The batter is more liquidy than most cakes or bread, but not entirely liquid. Do the ovens cook it or bake it? If cooked, it falls under the halachos of bishul akum. We then ask, is it of a quality to serve at a king’s table? If it is, the halachah prohibits us from eating it. Again, it’s hard to decide. But if you say they are baked rather than cooked, they are considered pas palter, goods baked in a factory, meaning we can’t eat them on Shabbos and during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
However, when a Jew turns the ovens off and on, then these cones become pas Yisrael, food cooked or baked by a Jew. Because a Jew cooked them, we don’t have to worry about whether they are grand enough to serve at a king’s table or about not eating them on Shabbos or during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. We can eat them any time we want!
Why would a worker change the controls on the ovens? “It’s easy for fires to shut off,” Rabbi Lefkowitz says. He brings two common examples: if a door opened and too much air came in or if one of the emergency fuses kicked in.
When that happens during kosher production, all production must stop. Waiting for the rabbi to show up to turn on the ovens costs the company thousands of dollars every minute. Therefore, Rabbi Lefkowitz pops into the plant many times during the day to make sure that all is well. He also keeps track of the precise number of cones produced so that Kemach can put its hechsherim on the correct number of boxes. For this reason, many specialty factories, like this one that makes only one product, refuse to serve a frum clientele (especially today, with the added Covid restrictions).
At this point, Rabbi Lefkowitz directs me into a large, clean, blessedly quiet room; I feel like Yonah emerging from the belly of the whale. I savor the silence and the coolness of the air. This space contains finished storage. “Skids” — wooden pallets used to load merchandise — line the floors containing piles of corrugated boxes of finished cones. The plant produces four or five skids of regular cones, about 7,200 cones per skid, for Kemach per day. It also manufactures one skid of sugar cones per day.
The tour over, we return to the office, where I remove my lab coat and net. It’s a small space with a couple of desks and a table. Here, we can finally talk.
Everything about the business fascinates the Rabbi: the production, complications, and everything that can go wrong. And with Covid, much has gone wrong.
“Businesses are only now beginning to feel the full impact of the pandemic,” he says.
Because of Covid, all producers are backlogged by about 20 percent.
Why? “Because of government handouts and subsidies, there aren’t enough workers or raw materials available. It’s a domino effect. Because of this, many industries are closing. I know that Hashem has an ultimate plan,” he says. “But man is doing his part in messing things up.”
Subsequently, finding specialty plants, such as this one willing to set aside time and employees to accommodate the frum community’s needs, is a significant achievement. Distributors like Kemach, he points out, make it happen.
Sugar and waffle cones have the most sugar, which is why they taste so good.
Waffle cones are specifically designed with a wide mouth to collect drips. They are softer than the sugar cones and more fragile, but it’s easier to pile multiple scoops of ice cream in them.
During the winter, Kemach sells the pointy cones primarily to ice-cream shops.
The smallest cones they sell are mini cones at 3 inches; the largest are waffle cones at 7 inches.
Kemach sells over 1.5 million cones a year throughout the US and Canada
Sugar cones are the most popular cones in the US and Canada. Brown sugar or molasses is added to them, which gives them a thicker and crunchier design and makes them very sturdy. Their rounded edge helps maintain the ice cream.
Bowls were added about two years ago and are sold exclusively to ice-cream stores. Most people don’t know these are distributed by Kemach.
The colored cones are the least popular.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 870)
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