Exodus: After 90 Years in Manhattan, Can Streit’s Matzo Reinvent Itself Upstate?


Inside the Streit’s matzo factory, the air is thick with the smell of burning toast. It radiates from the first-floor oven and wafts upstairs, lingering outside Aaron Gross’s scuffed white door. A hidden staircase leads to the foyer outside his office, which is invisible except for a plaque that reads “sales office,” with a hand-painted arrow pointing to the door. It’s mid-April, ten days after Passover, which usually means relief and the beginning of Streit’s (the name rhymes with brights) slow season following the biggest — if not the only — Jewish holiday to feature matzo as a prominent menu item. Usually, the end of Passover means the factory will slow down production until ramping up again in November.

But this year, the usual hum from the packaging room outside Gross’s office has been supplanted by a cacophony of whirring and clanking typical of the factory’s busy holiday season. The workers on the floor are putting in grueling, twelve-hour days in order to make an entire year’s worth of daily, non-Passover matzo in just two months. In January, after 90 years at its current location on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Streit’s factory — comprising four converted tenements on Rivington Street — was sold to a developer for $30.5 million (the sale was finalized in May). But without a deal in place for a new facility, and with some shareholders pushing to sell the company outright, Streit’s is essentially on the verge of becoming a manufacturer without a factory. The company’s 30 employees are mixing, baking, and loading about 6,800 extra pounds of matzo each day on the off chance that the situation will not be resolved by the fall.

Gross is 40 years old, with gelled, sandy hair, and maintains a deep tan. He’s given to wearing crisp, open-collared shirts with rolled-up sleeves — not exactly what one would picture as the traditional uniform of a matzo baker. His wife, Tiffani, assumed, “American football player” when she first met him. During the pressure-packed months of March and April, he spends little time on the factory floor. He’s more likely to be found sequestered in his office, answering calls from his four real estate brokers, the factory’s mechanical engineer, or anyone else who wants a piece of him during the frantic ramp-up before Passover. On this day, Gross is listening to his maintenance man, Angelo Curto, who just stormed into his office, flustered by a dispute he’s had with Streit’s shipping and billing overseer, Mike Tepper.

“I’m scrambling!” Curto exclaims, flinging his arms into the air. “He needs lightly salted! He’s having a heart attack!”  

Gross hardly reacts. He sits calmly, reading from his laptop and listening to Curto explain that in four hours, he’s going to need to switch from the whole-wheat matzo they’re currently producing to the lightly salted variety — and that only one of the facility’s two ovens are working. Gross looks up from his computer through his wiry glasses, and gives a what do you want me to do? shrug. Curto leaves in a huff.

“I’m really stressed out,” Gross says.

Aaron Gross is part of the family-owned company’s fifth-generation leadership. He is the youngest of Streit’s three executive vice presidents, a title he shares with his cousins Aron Yagoda and Alan Adler. The company’s eleven shareholders are all family members — seven women and four men, none of whom are still named Streit — spanning three generations. (The shareholders elect the company’s five board members. Some, like Gross, are both.)

For years, Streit’s has lagged behind its biggest competitors — Manischewitz, a massive New Jersey–based producer of kosher products, and Israeli powerhouses like Yehuda and Matzot Aviv — in terms of overall matzo production. This can mostly be blamed on the Rivington Street facility’s woefully out-of-date equipment. Much of the machinery hasn’t been replaced since the 1930s. In April 2014, a branch of the private equity firm Bain Capital, Sankaty Advisors, bought Manischewitz, fortifying the company’s already seemingly insurmountable financial advantage over Streit’s. Around the same time, members of the Streit’s board of directors held their first talk about upgrading the company’s outdated facilities. The sale of the Rivington Street property in January was part of an announcement that the company planned to close its 90-year-old factory and relocate to a Tri-State suburb.

It was a decision the cousins had resisted for years, despite Gross’s urging. The family has owned the company since 1925, watching it, in the intervening years, become an American Jewish icon, known as much for its antique equipment and charming, of-an-era urban factory as it was for its matzo products. Gross and his cousins, as well as several of the company’s non-family employees, respond personally to each customer letter and email, and “like” every Instagram photo tagged of them by nostalgic clients or loyal fans. Streit’s has a front office that consists of nine staff members, each of whom does a little bit of everything. But the company’s two, aging, 72-foot-long convection ovens (which Gross claims make the best matzo in the world because they bake the cracker evenly from all sides) have begun to slow, eking out product 25 percent slower than at their peak ten years ago. The huge modern ovens required for mass production will never fit in the Rivington Street facility. At this point, Gross believes, a new location is Streit’s only chance of survival.

Matzo sales topped $85 million in the United States in 2014. Menachem Lubinsky, president of the marketing and consulting firm Lubicom, estimates Streit’s makes about 35 percent and Manischewitz 65 percent of domestic sales, with Israeli brands owning around 40 percent of the overall market share. Gross won’t disclose sales numbers, but news outlets such as the Associated Press and Marketplace, among many others, say Streit’s makes an annual profit of about $20 million. Even with more than 80 products, matzo represents 60 percent of the company’s sales. They make 2.5 million pounds of matzo a year and distribute to grocery stores across the country — Publix, Whole Foods, Waldbaum’s — and also ship to Canada and Europe.

A new factory would allow the company to exist on a single floor — the Rivington Street location is a six-floor affair, with the Rube Goldberg–like production operation occupying two of them — creating a leaner, more efficient facility, on par, perhaps, with those of Manischewitz and Matzot Aviv. “We want to go from the most inefficient to the most efficient matzo company in the world,” Gross says. Another goal, he says, is to modernize their product line, introducing gluten-free matzo (Manischewitz got there first) and incorporating newer, hipper ingredients like oats and quinoa.

A sticking point for Gross’s lofty goals has been the move itself. For months, the family hasn’t been able to agree on a location for a new facility. Gross has been trying to convince his cousins to approve his choice in Rockland County. But with time running out to make a decision before they’re scheduled to move out of Rivington Street, and no guarantee that a new facility will be up and running by fall, Gross and the other vice presidents are still weighing their options. September is when Streit’s typically begins producing matzo for the upcoming Passover. About half of their annual sales come from the eight-day holiday. If a new facility is not operational by November, at the latest, they’ll be forced either to outsource their production to Manischewitz or to skip the season altogether.

“Don’t wait until the last day,” one of his brokers warns Gross about starting contract negotiations on a new factory. “Otherwise you could be screwed.”

Matzo is known as “the bread of affliction.” Shortly after the Pharaoh let Moses and the Children of Israel leave Egypt, he had a change of heart, and the Jews didn’t have enough time to let their bread rise before fleeing. During Passover, observant Jews avoid eating yeast, so they substitute regular bread with matzo, unleavened bread, for eight days each spring.

For centuries matzo was a handmade specialty, carefully rolled into a thin, cratered moon shape and pricked with a fork. Today, many Orthodox communities still make this version — called shmurah — which is supervised by a rabbi from start to finish. But industrialization in the mid–nineteenth century forever changed the matzo industry.

Historians trace the first matzo machine back to a French Jew named Isaac Singer (no relation to the American inventor of the sewing machine), who, in 1838, invented a contraption that automated rolling the dough, rather than kneading it, which cut prep time. The new contraption greatly increased the supply of matzo, which also made it cheaper. Countries around Europe soon began using the machine, a great boon for the growing Jewish population across the world. In 1888, Behr Manischewitz, a Russian rabbi, brought a version of Singer’s machine to America, settling in Cincinnati and establishing the country’s first matzo company. By 1915, when Aron Streit emigrated to New York from Austria and founded his matzo business, Manischewitz had upgraded to three rolling machines and was by far the largest producer of matzo, cranking out 1.25 million crackers a day. So, essentially, other American producers, like Streit’s, have been playing catch-up from the beginning.

Originally, Streit’s was a handmade-matzo bakery located on 65 Pitt Street on the Lower East Side. In 1925, Streit switched to automated manufacturing and moved his business to the corner of Rivington and Suffolk streets, where it would remain. He would eventually expand his facility, incorporating three neighboring tenement buildings he had acquired over the years. But given Manischewitz’s twenty-year head start, it was nearly impossible for Streit’s and other, smaller producers to overtake their biggest competitor.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Manischewitz would introduce a conveyer belt system that would allow the entire baking process to be automated. After Behr Manischewitz’s death in 1914, his son, Jacob Uriah Manischewitz (one of five sons to whom Behr would leave the company), would incorporate even more technology into the operation (he is said to have acquired more than 50 patents), including an electric eye designed to automatically count the number of crackers in a box. From the 1930s to the ’60s, four major matzo manufacturers dominated the market, until Manischewitz bought out two, leaving only Streit’s to fight for share in the niche market.

When Aron Streit died in 1937, his two sons, Irving and Jack, bought out their two sisters to run the family business. It’s remained mostly a male-run company since. The following decades were a time of prosperity for Streit’s as the company dominated the East Coast market, even as Manischewitz in 1932 built a second factory in Jersey City, hoping to tap into the Tri-State’s large Jewish population. Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University who has studied matzo’s history extensively, says Manischewitz’s expansion to New Jersey launched what he calls the “golden age” of American-produced matzo.

By all accounts, the middle part of the twentieth century was a good time for the Streit family, at least financially. The family’s wealth was hinted at in a 1956 New York Times article, which reported that two men broke in to Jack Streit’s Brooklyn home and ordered his three daughters, at gunpoint, to ransack the house. The burglars made off with more than $12,000 in furs, jewelry, and cash.

But despite their wealth, the Streits put little of their own money into the company. Mikie Heilbrun, a cousin and current shareholder, remembers Irving and Jack using a switchboard telephone in the 1970s, which she guessed dated back to the time of World War II. Gross says it wouldn’t have made sense to pour millions of dollars into new equipment when none of the modern machines fit in the building.

When Jack died in 1998, the obituary in the Times read, “By rights, the Streit factory on Rivington Street should have been shuttered long ago, the ovens sold for scrap, the small family-owned business gobbled up by some giant conglomerate and Mr. Streit freed from his 60-year routine to play golf, perhaps, or to travel the world or merely to laze around his house in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn.”

Few family-owned businesses make it into a fifth generation still owned and operated by blood relatives. The Manischewitz family sold their business for the first time in 1990 after no one stepped up past the third generation. But while none of the remaining family members who work in the business are actually named Streit, they have continued to run the business decade after decade. Unlike his cousins — and fellow executive vice presidents — Gross grew up far away from the factory. He was raised on a twenty-acre farm in Maryland with his mother and older sister. His parents divorced when he was five; his father, Mel Gross, whose mother was Irving Streit’s daughter, moved to New Jersey. Mel worked for 25 years as a horse trainer, until the early 1990s, when he joined the family business, becoming a vice president at Streit’s.

Gross graduated from Georgetown and worked briefly in finance before one summer deciding to quit so he could rent a house with several friends in Dewey Beach, Delaware. Like his father, he got involved in horse training, finally moving out to New York in the late 1990s. There, he worked at the Belmont Park and Aqueduct racetracks. Though he worked outside of the city, Manhattan was his playground. He lived on East 7th Street and Avenue B in the East Village and partied at places like the Red Lion, Arthur’s Tavern, and Indochine, where he met his wife, Tiffani, through a college friend. In 1999, at the age of 24, he decided he wanted to work with his father and began doing odd jobs at the matzo factory at night. He labored on the packaging line, helped mix the dough, and jumped in whenever someone needed a hand. He worked alongside some of the men who still work for him today.

“It was tough in the beginning, working with my father. It wasn’t all just roses,” he says. “My father was a very strong person. Very loud, boisterous, larger-than-life guy. So, he would let you know anything and everything. You would always know where he stood.”

In 2001 he moved into the sales department full time. In 2005 the company’s shareholders approved his appointment to vice president after Mel Gross, then just 58 years old, died suddenly from complications from a stroke. Aaron Gross says he is the only current executive vice president to make an “organic” progression up the company ladder.

The Streit’s floor workers know how to fix jammed equipment and extinguish oven fires. This is good, because breakdowns are happening more and more as the company pushes forward with the near-impossible task of producing an entire year’s worth of matzo in the course of two months.

Outside of Gross’s office, baskets of fresh matzo clink leisurely across the ceiling on a moving chain. Each matzo begins as a simple mixture of flour and water, kneaded into soft dough, squeezed into ribbons down through a shaft to the first floor, folded back and forth up to sixteen times (a technique unique to Streit’s that helps give the matzo snap). They’re then rolled into thin sheets on a conveyer belt, perforated, and cooked for two minutes in an oven at 800 degrees, where they bubble and brown. (At the ovens’ peak, the matzo cooked in a minute and twenty seconds.) They finally lurch off the oven belt crispy and tan in color, with browned edges, to be cracked apart by pickers into individual squares. Next, they begin a cooling, fifteen-minute ride up a conveyor belt that leads to the second floor.

The second floor spans almost 10,000 square feet and is loosely divided into sections by white brick windowpanes and the sort of plastic curtains one finds in a butcher’s freezer. Wires thick and thin slither along the walls and ceiling until they tangle or die in severed ends. The only light comes from either exposed single bulbs or harsh white fluorescence. No one seems to care about the matzo spillage or cracker crumbs stuck between crevices in the equipment.

About five men silently work the 1930s-era packaging machine, quickly trying to keep up with backlog. Curto, the maintenance man, wanders around surveying the production and occasionally barks out orders. They’re producing about 1,700 pounds of matzo an hour. One man calmly pulls the matzo stacks from the baskets, but can’t place them on the belt in time. Dozens of crackers build up on folding tables next to him. There’s a backup on the receiving end as well, after matzo is stuffed inside cardboard boxes. Sergio, one of the line workers, grabs the boxes and piles them high on the ledges so they don’t cram before whooshing into the overwrap machine. Many crackers don’t make it onto the ledge and end up strewn across the floor.

Now the boxes are on their way to the overwrap machine, which, at fifteen years old, is Streit’s newest piece of equipment. It’s a plastic container like an old-fashioned popcorn maker. Once inside the overwrap machine, a wide, flat iron stamps a box while simultaneously enveloping it in a glossy wrapping paper — a Streit’s signature that Gross dislikes. He plans to eventually get rid of the box wrap and begin wrapping only the matzo bundles inside the box with clear plastic — just like Manischewitz. He admires their presentation.

Whenever a box jams in the overwrap machine, Jose, a longtime employee who has been working the machine for twenty years, whistles over its deafening chugging sound to get the attention of the worker at the beginning of the line. The machine surges as it comes to a halt. Jose opens the clear doors and squeezes his small frame inside. He jiggles the box free — but it’s completely destroyed. He throws it in a garbage bin, shaking his head. He secures the doors and punches several plastic buttons until they illuminate green. The machine starts up. Not five minutes go by before it jams again and Jose repeats his routine. Then it happens again. Such is life at a 90-year-old facility.

There’s a 23-year age gap between Gross and Alan Adler, the eldest executive vice president, who is 63. Small squabbles occur during the day-to-day, but there’s emerged more of a divide between the three-headed management team as they’ve tried to decide on a post–Rivington Street direction for the company.

“When they came up with this ‘We’re going to have three people on a management committee,’ I realized that my younger cousin Aaron was my equal,” says Adler. When Mel Gross died in 2005, the board voted to restructure the management, and Gross, Adler, and Yagoda became equal vice presidents — a structure, Gross notes, that goes against advice given in business school.

Adler says he plans to retire within the next five to ten years and is seen at the office less frequently these days. He pushed to move the company a decade ago, but today admits he’s not up for it anymore. He also says his children aren’t interested in taking over for him once he steps down — he advised them to work elsewhere and, when it came time to discuss moving the company, approached his college-age son and said, “If you’re interested in the business, I’d be much more inclined to build a factory.”

“No, you told me I should go work elsewhere,” Adler remembers his son replying.

In 2014, when the board first began seriously considering a move following a resolution to address the need to upgrade, Gross had to first try to get Adler and the board to buy in to the idea of moving at all. Then, once he achieved consensus, he had to get them to agree on where to relocate. When he finally found the factory in Rockland County, persuasion didn’t come easy.

Eventually, the odd decision to agree to sell the Rivington Street facility before locking down a new factory stemmed from the family discord. The older generation wants to take its share of the money from the factory’s sale, while the younger ones, Gross and Yagoda, want to relocate and modernize.

“I do feel like some of the older generations, not necessarily the management, the three of us, sometimes maybe, but the shareholders may have a different vision based on their age,” says Gross. “But if I was 80, I might say, ‘I want the money right now, I’m not going to live forever.’ ”

“Alan’s at a different place in his life than Aaron. Aaron wants the next twenty years and Alan wants to retire,” says Heilbrun, the shareholder and cousin.

“There’s been a lot of disagreement,” says Tiffani Gross, acknowledging that’s the nature of family businesses. “Everyone has their own agenda for the future.”

Having made more than $30 million from the sale of the factory, Gross hopes to use $6 million to buy a new, state-of-the-art facility, and another $4 million on new equipment, which would leave plenty to allow the older generation to retire. Days before the sale, Adler finally agreed to the idea of moving to Rockland County.

Still, Gross says he wishes Adler had bought in sooner. “I wanted to have consensus for our future before we agreed to sell this place,” he says. “That’s what I was pushing for, but that didn’t happen. We went down to the wire, but that’s the way it works. Some people don’t want to budge until they have to.”

Heilbrun, whose mother, Myrna Heilbrun, was a granddaughter of Aron Streit, says she is thinking about moving away from the city since the company decided to move. “I wish I could have had more of a say, but I’m not a businesswoman. I hope my cousins are making the best choices, because we want the same thing.”

Streit’s is the last family-owned matzo factory operating in the United States. But it remains to be seen how long that may last, and Gross says he too has entertained the question of selling.

Still, he says, “Without a factory, we’d just be selling the brand.” He adds that he’s sure some shareholders would buy anyone out if it ever came to that — though he denies there are plans for a buyout.

“My guess is they’ll go in with the same company that makes Manischewitz matzo and then actually package some of it under other labels,” says Sarna.”That would create a matzo monopoly, but it would not surprise me if that’s what actually happened, because [Manischewitz has] such a technological head start that one wonders whether Streit’s really wants to invest so much in starting a company somewhere else.”

Gross concedes that they might need to outsource the first season.

“We may not be as efficient as we want to be, honestly,” he says. “Our packaging line may not be up to par the first year back.”

The family say they’re setting up the company in a way that will allow it to survive for decades to come. But no one seems sure whether that will actually include future descendants of Aron Streit.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be set up,” says Yagoda, 47, who has two children, ages 10 and 14. “None of us set out to work here, so I’d like to figure out how the next generation can or can’t come in, and as the family’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s getting more spread out. So far the next generation has gone on to do something else.”

About an hour outside of New York City by subway, PATH train, or Uber, just past an abandoned high school football stadium in the lonesome outskirts of Newark, the Manischewitz manufacturing facility and headquarters stands out from its gloomy, industrial neighbors on Avenue K, with its beautifully swept concrete steps and lush lawn.

The state-of-the-art factory is crucial to keeping the company on top. Manischewitz has occupied this sprawling 180,000-square-foot space since 2011. It is more than four times the size of the Streit’s matzo factory, and 60,000 square feet larger than the Rockland County facility Gross has been pushing for.

Inside, the carpet has been freshly vacuumed. Men in black suits meet in a glass-walled conference room across from reception, where dozens of matzo boxes line the walls. Randall Copeland, the vice president of operations for Manischewitz, emerges from the cluster of cubicles adjacent to the foyer wearing a white lab coat and neon hard hat. He’s a broad Southern Baptist from Georgia and speaks with a slow drawl. He calls the receptionist “sweetheart.” Back in his office, he removes his hat and reveals wispy hair plastered down by sweat.

On this day, they’re producing only gluten-free matzo. “A lot of folks, in particular Jewish people, have a problem with gluten,” he explains, and then leans forward like he’s about to tell a secret. “It actually tastes like a matzo ball! There are some mixes that are gluten-free that, eh, just don’t really have much flavor.”

Gluten-free matzo has become a trend in the industry. Sarna says matzo-makers have always had an eye toward larger food-industry trends.

“The big thing this year, which you can see in any store, is gluten-free,” he says. “And this is a very old story of matzo proprietors trying to market their product according to whatever the latest fad is.” He explains that Manischewitz has been advertising the cracker as a health food since the early twentieth century.

Flour footprints on the doormat outside of the factory entrance are one of the only indications of untidiness in the entire facility. The first room, once inside, is where the matzo is made. Sacks weighing 1,000 pounds each contain sifted raw materials. The air in the room smells different, starchier, than would a room filled with sacks of plain flour.

“Smell like putayta?” Mr. Copeland asks, grinning. He walks over to a pallet of brown bags, his neon hard hat glinting out against the dull gray of the factory, and points to a label that reads “potato starch.”

The adjacent room holds a 150-foot stainless steel oven, with infrared and ribbon burners, which burns hot under colossal ceilings. Alongside it, discarded matzos lay curled like burnt letters inside recycling bins. A man is sweeping up crumbs. Through yet another door, the matzos flow up a mountainous conveyor belt to cool. No pickers here.

The factory consists of three other vast rooms: dry manufacturing for items like matzo ball mix, wet manufacturing for gefilte fish production, which inhabits a slick quarter that reeks of salty seafood, and a cookie bakery where macaroons are made. Stacks of tapioca glucose, potato crush, plastic wrap, and labels separate the rooms.

The Manischewitz facility, tucked away in a remote corner of Newark just eleven miles from the Lower East Side, is a fantasy come to life for Gross.

On June 2, as the final hours of baking tick away at the Rivington Street facility, it feels just like any other day. Tepper, the billing and shipping manager, types on his computer while the workers stand alongside the packaging machine and Gross holds a private meeting in his office. The company’s longtime supervising rabbi, Mayer Kirshner, gives a final tour to a group of six, signing the matzo boxes he hands out as souvenirs. Once the baking is finished, the exodus begins. For exactly two months, the workers dismantle each machine, take down the matzo baskets, stack onto carts several old file boxes brimming with yellowed papers, and load up the two hefty wooden desks once used by Irving and Jack Streit. Ninety years’ worth of blood, sweat, tears, and memories fill five tractor-trailers, which are driven to Streit’s warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey. On July 28, their final day in the building, Gross switches off the factory lights as he leaves. Only a lone desk chair remains in the main office downstairs.

These days, the usual Streit’s voicemail is changed to delete Gross’s, Adler’s, and Yagoda’s extensions, since they no longer exist. Oftentimes, the line just blares a busy signal. The front office staff is operating out of a trailer at the warehouse, and Gross is still frantically working out last-minute logistics on moving in to a new factory. The Rockland County facility has not been officially announced as Streit’s new home, but the contracts have been signed.

The Rockland factory sits right off the exit connecting King’s Highway and the highly traveled route 303 in Orangeburg. It’s a single-floor industrial structure set back in a tree-lined parking lot. With a population of 4,568, Orangeburg is a largely Jewish town, so Gross says he’ll be able to hire employees who observe Sabbath. The facility needs a couple improvements — namely, adding additional loading docks (Streit’s has not had a single one in 90 years) — and Gross envisions a “Streit’s” sign on the highway shoulder to beckon drivers.

“I remember my uncle lived in Rockland County. That was like the boonies,” Adler says. “As the customers move, so do the family.”

The frantic final months on Rivington Street behind him, now a new type of stress has set in for Gross. The new facility needs to be operational by September so they can begin baking in November for next year’s Passover — the first day they turn on the ovens, they’ll be three months behind schedule. But this is a company that is used to playing from behind.