American brands use nostalgia to compete with cheaper Israeli counterparts.
By DAFNA LASKIN
NEW YORK CITY – Behind a small, brown street-level door in New York City, cousins Aron Gross and Aron Yagoda direct Streit’s Matzo factory, a family operation nearly 100 years old.Gross and Yagoda’s office is rather humble, with stacks of loose paper piled high on the desk and black and white portraits of their ancestors hanging from the walls. Being so close to Passover, there are some 10 opened boxes of competitors’ matza on a side table.Yagoda runs through each one, labeling some too light, some burnt, some too easily breakable and others tasting too much like the plastic they were sealed in.He holds up the Streit’s sample. “Good perforations, lightly browned, the sheets are intact,” Yagoda notes.Streit’s packs it directly into the box, so there’s no lingering plastic smell to speak of.The factory itself is housed within three cramped stories of a former tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, once the epicenter of Jewish America. Today, Streit’s is one of the few relics of the neighborhood’s ethnic heyday, as the area has been undergoing gentrification for roughly a decade and is now a popular nightlife destination.Next to the factory is a small Streit’s store, dealing in cash or check only.AdvertisementMuch of the machinery used to produce the matza hasn’t been changed since the 1940s, a fact of pride at Streit’s. The factory is under the rabbinic supervision of Moshe Soloveitchik, but previously it was under the supervision of his father, renowned Talmud and halakha scholar Aaron Soloveitchik.“I had no idea who he was at the time,” Yagoda says. “Yeshiva boys used to come crowd outside the building, trying to get a glimpse of the rabbi, touch him, ask him a question – he was a rockstar to them.”By all accounts, Streit’s and its main competitor, Manischewitz, are the only two real forces in the domestic “matza market.” There are small-scale matza schmura operations, mainly in Brooklyn, and a handful of local bakers around the US that make a more “artisan” product.However, in the last decade, the Israeli matza market has allegedly begun to undercut the domestic brands. Boxes of Aviv, Osem, and Yehuda matza, all produced in Israel, are regularly sold at nearly 40 percent less than their American competitors, often times even given away to customers who spend a certain amount on their other groceries.“The Israelis have lower labor costs,” Yagoda says. “They pay their workers less, they sell their product direct instead of through a distributor.” Since matza is generally the only item they sell, they don’t worry about building relationships with distributors for the rest of the year. “They pretty much just drop their matza off at the store and leave,” says Yagoda.For all of its religious and Judaic importance, matza is really just seen as a “loss leader” by stores selling Passover foods. An Osem analyst recently calculated that the average American Passover-observant family spends between $1,500 and $2,000 on holiday products. Stores understand that taking a financial hit on matza, and offering cut-rate prices (or even giving it away for free) will likely help them get a bigger share of the Passover market. So, stores that already know they won’t make a profit on a product like matza may be more likely to gravitate toward a cheaper wholesale price – in this case, Israeli matza.Desire to purchase Israeli goods may also be driving Jewish shoppers to grab a box of Osem’s “Israeli Matzah,” which in the past has linked itself to Jewish National Fund campaigns. In the wake of various boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel, organizations like “Buy Israel” have cropped up, hoping to influence foreign shoppers to buy imported Israeli products.“I’m always drawn to Israeli products when I see them in stores and Passover especially seems like a good time to show some extra support,” says Leah King, a Jewish educator in Needham, Massachusetts shopping for Passover products.King says she looks for teachable moments for her students, who sometimes think Israel is totally removed from their lives. “If I can show them products directly from Israel, it makes an impact,” she says.Streit’s, however, possesses a powerful deterrent against the desire to “Buy Israel” – nostalgia. “Most families have been eating Streit’s matza for generations,” says Yagoda. “Some people don’t even know the name of the brand, but they know their family has been buying the ‘pink box’ of matza since as long as they can remember.”Indeed, Yagoda touts Streit’s history and “neighborhood” feel as his matza’s best selling points.“Some guys work here for generations, we give free tours, people coming with their kids and talk about when they came as kids with their parents.”A few weeks before Passover, Streit’s built a small stage on the ground floor and invited children to come for a free Mama Doni concert. “We like to stay connected to the community,” Yagoda says.Here, Yagoda highlights an important idea: In a market featuring a product that by halacha has to be made the same way by every manufacturer, how does a company stand out over others? Streit’s appeals to sentimental buyers, offering “The Taste of a Memory,” while Manischewitz pursues the health conscious with their slogan “Healthy Body, Healthy Spirit.”Both companies have been making efforts to reach out to buyers interested in matza not for Passover, but for regular consumption.Let’s face it: Who, exactly, is interested in consuming a product with a moniker as endearing as “the bread of affliction” the other 51 weeks a year? Streit’s has been fairly successful at breaking into the non-Passover market.Their various flavors of year-round matza are good sellers, but their “Thinkbread,” matza made from five grains, has been rather ineffectively marketed at people who want to eat healthy, low fat, all-natural crackers. It’s also been marketed toward the “gourmet” crowd, Yagoda says.“Think about what a Carr’s water cracker is,” he says. “It’s basically just a little round matza cracker, but people buy it for gourmet uses.”Yagoda is hopeful that Streit’s might break into the gourmet cracker market, but he’s well aware that selling the same matza that generations of Jewish families have been purchasing since the 1920s is the company’s bread and butter.An unlikely and limitedly nascent market for Streit’s matza has taken root in various denominations of churches across the US.These churches are interested in using matza as the host portion of communion, when congregants eat a piece of unleavened bread signifying the body of Jesus Christ. Several Christian supply websites offer churches the opportunity to buy “Streit’s Communion Bread” in bulk.All in all, Yagoda isn’t really worried about the so-called “matza economy,” domestic or imported.“If they aren’t happy with Manischewitz, they switch to us. If they aren’t happy with us, they switch to Manischewitz, it’s very fluid,” he says. “As long as there’s Passover, people will buy our matza.”
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