Mainstreaming Manischewitz

Touting healthier and more flavorful items, the latest owners hope to position the venerable company “for the next 124 years, God willing.”

At the Manischewitz plant in Newark, co-CEOs Alain Bankier (left) and Paul Bensabat stand by a machine that punches the holes in matzo.
Photos by Stuart Goldenberg.

The macaroons march down the conveyor belt in formation, 21 doughy little knobs to a row, heading for a nearly 400-degree gas convection oven. They emerge a toastier shade of cappuccino, with slightly crunchy, browned bottoms.

Randall Copeland, vice president of operations for Manischewitz, plucks two cookies off the line before they hit the packaging machinery. “Catch ’em here and they’re cool enough on the outside to touch but still warm on the inside,” he says, offering a sample and taking one himself. “Mmmmm.”

The Manischewitz plant, in an industrial area of Newark, is going full-tilt this winter morning, cranking out kosher products for Passover 2012. In the steamy “wet room,” pale hunks of gefilte fish are plopping into jars of broth. The matzo operation—Manischewitz began as a matzo maker 124 years ago and remains the world’s largest manufacturer—is cranking out enough unleavened bread to circle the globe twice, while rabbinical supervisors in beards and sanitary white hairnets keep vigilant watch. It all looks reassuringly timeless.

But the company has endured considerable turbulence of late. This is not your father’s Manischewitz. Having long since passed out of family control, the company has changed hands several times. It nearly went under a few years back but weathered what the media dubbed the Great Tam Tam Crisis (about which more later). Its current co-CEOs are its fourth top managers in as many years.

This annual Passover sprint, which accounts for 40 percent of yearly sales, remains crucial. Once it’s over, though, Manischewitz’s latest owners will redouble their efforts to turn an iconic kosher-food brand into something different—less seasonal and tradition bound, more mainstream.

“We’re positioning it for the next 124 years, God willing,” says Alain Bankier, who, with co-CEO Paul Bensabat and a financial partner, acquired the company in 2008. “And the way we’re doing that is to come up with great new products that appeal to all people, not just Jewish people.”

They won’t get much argument about the need for reinvention. “Think about the demographics,” says Yakov Yarmove, who directs ethnic-food marketing for the SuperValu supermarket chain, including Acme. “That older generation” —the one nostalgic about Eastern European Jewish food—“is dying out.  The younger generation has a whole different attitude toward how they shop, what they cook, what they eat…. How many people buy a jar of gefilte fish anymore?  It’s a waning category.”

So crossover marketing makes sense, veterans of the kosher food business agree. The question is, can Manischewitz pull it off? 

Bankier and Bensabat were both born in Casablanca, so you can insert jokes about a beautiful friendship here.  Bensabat, the lankier of the duo, didn’t come to the United States until he was 22 and thus retains a Moroccan/French accent in which the holiday becomes “Pahss-OH-ver.” Bankier sounds less exotic; his family emigrated when he was eight. Though both grew up in entrepreneurial Sephardic Jewish families, they didn’t meet until they were graduate students pursuing MBAs at New York University.

Perhaps it’s helpful that the shtetl cuisine of Eastern Europe was never part of their upbringing.  Neither had tasted gefilte fish until adulthood. “It wasn’t as flavorful and sophisticated as Mediterranean food, with its complex spices and seasonings,” Bensabat says, semi-tactfully.

Manischewitz once wrought a revolution in American Jewish eating.  Its founder, a Lithuanian immigrant who opened a matzo factory in Cincinnati in 1888, had an Edisonian penchant for tinkering and mechanization.  Dov Behr Manischewitz and his descendants turned a sacramental food once handmade in tiny local bakeries into a standardized, mass-produced, nationally distributed product.  

The company went on to produce hundreds of kosher foods, from soup to soup nuts, and eventually moved its manufacturing to Jersey City, with corporate offices in Secaucus.  Along the way, it acquired most of its small competitors—brands like Mother’s, Rokeach, Goodman’s, Horowitz Margareten and Mrs. Adler’s, which still exist, but are owned by Manischewitz and produced in its Newark factory.

Manischewitz underwent a similar corporate evolution. The founding family sold it in 1991 to the private equity firm Kohlberg & Co., which spun it off to a holding company that in 2008 merged with a small kosher frozen-food company led by Bensabat and Bankier. The new owners were excited, Bensabat recalls, “to be able to put our hands on the flagship brand, the name every American Jew has grown up with.” They were also inheriting a mess.

Manischewitz, though “a little tired,” in Bensabat’s words, had nonetheless been profitable for years. But in 2007, a move to the former Rokeach plant in Newark went seriously awry. Glitches plagued the facility’s new $15 million matzo-production line, but the old factory had already been shut down—and the critical Passover season loomed.

“We were concerned, very concerned,” says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union, the largest U.S. certifier of kosher foods. “Would there be enough matzo for customers?”

Manischewitz’s then managers eked out enough for the holiday, but had to cancel production of the popular six-sided, matzo-like cracker called Tam Tams, a debacle chronicled in the New York Times and on NPR. Seder goers everywhere felt “a sense of betrayal,” says Sue Fishkoff, author of the book Kosher Nation, exaggerating only slightly. “We’ve always loved you, Manischewitz. Why are you doing this to us?” Rumors circulated that the venerable company was on shaky ground.

It was. “The company went into semi-chaos,” says Bensabat. Privately held Manischewitz is tight-lipped about its finances, but its current CEOs say it lost money—a lot of it—for two years.

Now Manischewitz claims to be in the black again, but it’s not fully out of the woods.
Except for a frozen-food plant in Lakewood and a warehouse in Mount Olive, all of Manischewitz is consolidated in Newark now.  The new owners gutted and rebuilt offices and moved corporate operations here from Secaucus; the revamped facility’s ribbon cutting in June 2011 featured the chief rabbi of Israel and the world’s longest matzo—24 feet. Also on hand was Mayor Cory Booker, who declared that the new facility, with its 250 to 500 jobs, depending on the season, “gives me great naches.”

In the swank new conference room, Bankier and Bensabat have set out several dozen also-new products—all-natural broths, gluten-free noodles, cupcake mixes. This is the future, they say.

Kosher food sales in the United States have grown enormously, but that’s primarily because large companies trying to increase their reach seek kosher certification for everyday products—Coke, Oreos, Tootsie Rolls—that most Americans buy without noticing the symbol on the label. The $12.5 billion ethnic kosher market has grown too, but less because of religious observance or a yen for borscht than because of anxiety about health.

“A lot of consumers have been scared by the craziness of food recalls,” Bankier says. “They’re worried about what they’re eating.” The market research firm Mintel reported in 2009 that, of kosher food buyers—a group encompassing Muslims (halal food requires some similar precautions), Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarians and vegans, the shellfish-allergic and lactose intolerant, plus less-observant Jews—most choose it because they believe kosher must be purer or healthier. “There’s the notion that God is involved in its production,” Fishkoff says.

Thus, all the products on the table bear a green-and-white icon touting health benefits: “all natural,” “low sodium,” “no cholesterol,” “0 grams trans fats.” “There’s no MSG in any product any more,” Bankier says. 
They’re rolling out new products too: 35 last year and 35 more this year, a vital tactic in the notoriously fickle food business. Many will incorporate Mediterranean flavors—cumin-flavored Moroccan fish meatballs, for instance—not just because of the CEOs’ own roots but because it’s “a hot trend,” Bankier says.

Along the way, the new managers pared away several hundred outdated items—varieties of gefilte fish, borscht, crackers—and redesigned the Manischewitz logo and packaging. They also did what acquiring corporations tend to do, laying off half the administrative staff and wresting concessions from the United Seafood Workers union.

Yet the company has to tread carefully. It can’t afford to, as politicians say, alienate the base—the Jewish consumer who keeps a kosher home and mourns Tam Tams when they disappear at Passover.  “It’s a question we wrestle with every day,” Bensabat acknowledges. “A whole new generation doesn’t want to buy the same old same old as Mom and Dad.”

But because Mom and Dad still matter, the company hasn’t killed off Rokeach, Mrs. Adler’s and its other small labels, either.  “Some people are very stuck on a particular recipe,” Bensabat says.

“They’re not stuck,” Bankier insists. “They’re faithful.” 

Ultimately, Manischewitz wants  to escape the kosher aisle and snag shelf space throughout the supermarket. Certain products, like the Guiltless Gourmet snack line, don’t broadcast their Manischewitz connection at all. Yet when marketing chief David Rossi created the Man-O-Manischewitz Cookoff, he resurrected an ad slogan from the 1960s.

“They’re savvy,” Menachem Lubinsky, editor in chief of the industry newsletter KosherToday, says of Bankier and Bensabat. “They know how to diversify their message, to be Jewish when they want to be and mainstream when they need to be.”

Perhaps, but they’re entering uncharted territory. “They’ve had some successes, but I’ve never seen a kosher item from a kosher manufacturer go national in a mainstream set,” says Yakov Yarmove, using the industry term for a supermarket section. Crossover marketing sounds logical, “but is it attainable?”
It’s a particularly American dilemma, common to pop culture as well as food: How do ethnic subcultures sell to everyone without selling out?

Entrepreneurs being a relentlessly optimistic breed, Bankier and Bensabat are convinced they’re on the right track.  They’re pushing gluten-free products (though Manischewitz’s attempt to ride the low-carb craze in 2004 crashed within a year, like everyone else’s). They’re introducing the Manischewitz Kosher Deli, a vending machine that will deliver hot knishes, blintzes and veggie burgers in 90 seconds (though other companies have tried kosher vending with limited success).

“Any company that doesn’t evolve over so many years will end up dying,” Bensabat says. 

New this year, therefore: Red-velvet Passover cake mix. Mint-chocolate macaroons. Organic matzo.

Paula Span writes the New Old Age blog for the New York Times, teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of When the Time Comes, about aging and caregiving. She lives in Montclair.

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