In Modern New York, Ancient Matzo-Making Craft Lives On
In New York City, a centuries-old craft lives on: the making of matzo bread.
Welcome to Streit's, Inc., a 96-year-old family enterprise on Manhattan's Lower East Side that on an hourly basis churns out 1,100 pounds (about 500 kilos) of the unleavened fare traditionally consumed by Jews during Passover.
"The business started originally with my great-grandfather Aron Streit and his elder son Irving Streit," said Alan Adler, one of the owners of the factory that spans six floors and features an imposing 10-meter (33 feet) oven dating back to the 1930s.
"We now have two fourth-generation cousins and one fifth-generation cousin running the business, and in addition there are other family members who have stock but don't work every day."
To make do with limited space for the operation -- tucked into a building in the historically Jewish neighborhood that once attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe -- the clan came up with a clever way to compress some of what needs to be done: it set up a series of suspended baskets onto which workers place the oven-fresh matzos so they can be whisked off to be wrapped.
"The product is constantly moving up and down," Adler said, noting that some other machinery in use dates back to the 1940s and 1950s. "It's a very labor-intensive process."
The Passover matzos, which symbolize the Jewish exodus from Egypt 5,000 years ago and traditionally consist of just flour and water, are made in line with religious requirements.
This means that under Jewish law, there has to be less than 18 minutes from the time the flour and water are mixed to when the crackers are cooked.
At Streit's, three rabbis normally supervise production. During the Passover season, that number soars to as many as eight.
"If there is ever a break in the line, the rabbis have stop watches and they time it," Adler said. "If we can't get back up and running in a few minutes, everything is thrown out and we clean the machinery and we start again," Adler said.
All the hard work has paid off over the years, which also saw a change in how the company makes money.
Early on, police would be called in on some Sundays for crowd control as customers lined up around the block outside a small bakery.
"As our customers moved out of the Lower East Side, our business model changed from direct sales to our customers, to sales to distributors who then resale to stores" throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Russia, Adler said.
Currently, Streit's Matzos hold a quarter of the U.S. matzo market, with those sold for Passover making up 60 percent of business.
Major competitors include New Jersey-based Manischewitz, which holds about 40 percent of the U.S. market. Israeli importers make up the rest.
"We think we have a better tasting product so we compete with quality," Adler said, noting his family's baking method makes "layers like the French croissant."
In an effort to appeal to a wider audience outside the holiday season, the company has expanded its offerings by infusing its all-kosher fare with flavors such as sundried tomatoes, basil and onion powder following less strict guidelines.
It also sells a slew of other products including soup, cake and potato pancake mixes.
"We have two ovens here, one is running all the time," Adler said. "We can barely keep up with demand.
"It's a flavorful large cracker that people eat all year round," he added.
Despite hefty costs in one of America's most expensive cities, the company is unlikely to leave its urban base any time soon -- although it does operate a more modern warehouse in the neighboring state of New Jersey.
"One of the extra costs is the parking tickets, and we get a lot of them," said Adler, noting the lack of a loading dock means trucks have to park on the street when they come for pick-ups.
"We all discussed it and we decided to stay here now," he added. "We don't know if we could replicate the taste somewhere else."