Streit Matzos exits Lower E. Side

The matza-making giant moving from current location after more than three-quarters of a century.

Streits matza 224.88 (photo credit: Michal Lando )
Streits matza 224.88
(photo credit: Michal Lando )
It's the Wednesday before Pessah, and the corner of Rivington and Suffolk streets on Manhattan's Lower East Side is stacked high with matzot ready to be hauled away. Inside the former tenement, which covers nearly the entire block, the 80-year-old Streit matza factory has almost stopped churning. In the afternoon, the hametz will be sold, and Streit Matzos, which claims to be the last family-run matza business in the US, will close for the holiday. But this year, the annual ritual strikes a slightly somber note. The eight-day closure feels like practice for a more permanent one on the horizon. The matza-making giant, which turns out 650,000 sheets of unleavened bread a day and has graced the Lower East side for more than three-quarters of a century, put the property up for sale in December. It is hoping to get $25 million, and to move the business to New Jersey, closer to its warehouse. Sitting beneath a portrait of his great-great-grandmother Nettie Streit, 32-year-old co-owner Aaron Gross said the family could no longer manufacture in the city. "Our ovens are on their last legs, they've been here since the '30s," Gross said. "It's become more difficult to produce in the most crowded city." In the last few weeks, the office at Streit's has turned into a film studio. In anticipation of its move, the business has been making a documentary to tell its story and the stories of its customers. Every Sunday for the last three weeks, people from across the city have flocked to the factory to recount their memories. When Streit's first started in 1925, the Lower East side teemed with Yiddish-speaking pedestrians, factory workers and peddlers. Being in the neighborhood gave Streit an advantage. Their trucks ran up and down the avenues, delivering matzot all over the city. They shared the neighborhood with other Jewish mainstays such as the Kedem winery and Ratner's Delicatessen. In the weeks leading up to Pessah, people would line up around the block to buy from the retail store on the ground floor that operates to this day. But a few days shy of Pessah 5768, only a few customers trickled in and out of the store. "Demographics and distribution have changed," Gross said. Now the trucks shuttle to and from a warehouse in New Jersey. "The retail store doesn't get the traffic, and this isn't the Jewish neighborhood it was," he said. Jews began to leave after World War II for more affluent neighborhoods. Replacing them were Hispanic and Chinese immigrants, who in the last few years have also disappeared, priced out by gentrification. What is left of the old world are only the bare bones, including Katz's Delicatessen, the oldest deli in New York, and knish seller Yonah Schimmel. "We are the last ones still doing big national distribution," Gross said. "Our competitors moved out and reaped the benefits of efficiency." Though it has remained a mom and pop business, it too has had to concede to changing times and competition. The company now sells 100 products, including soup mixes, farfel, ethnic kosher foods and several flavors of year-round matza. In the last five years, it has "cleaned up" its products, removing MSG and offering an organic line of unleavened bread. "We want to be the first to buck the trend and make our products 'clean for Whole Foods,'" said Gross, in a reference to the organic grocery chain. Gross is the fifth generation of Streits involved in the matza-making business. In the 1890s Aron Streit and his wife, Nettie, immigrated to America from Austria. Around 1915, Aron, who had experience making matza, opened a handmade matza factory on the Lower East Side. In 1925 after a brief respite, Aron and a son opened a machine bakery on Rivington Street, where it still stands. An office drawer contains Aaron's immigration papers, and a set of his teeth. And the walls are draped with portraits of the Streit family dating back to the 19th century. Today, three Streit descendants - two great-grandsons and a great-great-grandson - carry on the enterprise. "Pessah is such a tradition based holiday, and we are the only ones who can offer that tradition - giving what your grandmother had 65-70 years ago," said Gross, who trained race horses before he joined the family business. On the ground floor, three men have been handling the matzot as it leaves the 900-degree oven; they first did this more than two decades ago. Jose Barllar, born in the Dominican Republic, says he heard of matza in his homeland, where "there are many Jews." But, today his knowledge extends well beyond hearsay. "I can do this job in my sleep," said Barllar as he removed a stack of hot matza and placed it in a metal cooling basket. The baskets are attached to a conveyor belt that carries them slowly across the ceiling, a device that is almost as old as the business. Pedestrians often stop and ask questions through the window. Jose and his co-workers offer them matza to taste, and a matza-eating dog drops by every day to get his ration. But Jose is worried he will lose his job once the business moves. Gross said the business "takes care of everybody." The factory will keep making matza until the family builds a new one, but what will change when the business leaves its home on the Lower East Side is still hard to say. Asked whether he expects his own kids to take over the business, Gross said: "I want them to do whatever they want."