Places that Matter

Streit's Matzos

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Streit's Matzos, exterior
Streit's Matzos, exterior
Streit's Matzos, upper facade
Streit's Matzos, equipment
Streit's Matzos co-owner Alan Adler in the loading dock, which once served as a Passover retail store
Streit's Matzos, current retail store
Oldest family-run matzo manufacturing company in the United States
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“It’s more of an art than a science,” says Alan Adler, proprietor of Streit’s Matzos on the Lower East Side. But the process of making matzo at Streit’s is a bit like alchemy.
 
Every spring during the Passover holiday, Jews commemorate their ancestors’ flight from slavery in Egypt. According to Exodus, chapters one through fifteen, the Jewish people left Egypt in such haste that they did not allow enough time for their bread to rise. Thus, Passover observers abstain from eating leavened bread, or chametz, during the festival. Instead they consume unleavened matzo, kneaded dough rolled very thin and perforated with holes so that it does not rise in the oven. For matzo to be certified “kosher for Passover,” the flour must be completely baked within eighteen minutes of coming into contact with water.
 
To be fair, this basic matzo recipe is universal, has not changed in several hundred years, and Jewish tradition dictates that it won’t be significantly altered any time soon. It is also important to note that an Alsatian Jew named Isaac Singer produced the first machine for rolling matzo dough in 1838, and in 1850, a Jewish newspaper reported on a primitive matzo-making machine in New York. By the 1920s, the entire process was mechanized.
 
Therefore, it is not inventor or first-family status that makes Streit’s Matzos unique. Instead, what is remarkable about Streit’s is the fact that members of the same family continue to turn out the same product, in the same way, in the exact same place, after four generations. As their website notes, “From our family to yours is more than just a slogan. It is a family tradition handed down from generation to generation in the Aron Streit family.”
 
Beginning in the 1880s, Jews fled en masse from pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. During the next four decades, one-third of Eastern Europe’s Jews came to the New World seeking safety, religious freedom and economic opportunities. Many ultimately found themselves in the new communities that they created in New York’s Lower East Side. As part of this exodus, in 1897, Aron and Nettie Streit immigrated from Austria to the United States, and by 1915, Aron and his partner, Rabbi Weinberger, were selling hand-made matzo from their bakery at 65 Pitt Street. Soon it became clear that mechanization was the wave of the future, so in 1925, Aron and one of his sons rented the first floor of a red brick Rivington Street tenement, where they opened a machine matzo factory. Aron’s other son joined the business, and as their capital increased, so did their spatial requirements. The Streits soon purchased the tenement containing their original facilities, as well as three adjoining properties.
 
Initially the business maintained a significant retail presence. During Passover in the 1920s and 1930s, what is now the company’s loading dock was cleared and converted into a retail space that served the large, and local, Jewish community. The company later opened a dedicated storefront at the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Streets, where shoppers can still purchase fresh Streit’s products. According to third-generation co-owner Alan Adler, in the 1930s and 1940s, customers would line up around the blocks on Sundays, and the commotion was such that police were required for traffic control.
 
By mid-century, Jews had migrated out of the Lower East Side to Brooklyn or the suburbs, and Streit’s began to distribute nationally. Although the neighborhood is no longer the hub of the Jewish community, and despite the fact that Streit’s matzos are available in Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean, Adler says that they still operate as they did in the 1920s and 1930s.
 
As of early 2015, Aron’s grand and great-grandchildren own Streit’s Matzos, and the factory still operates out of its original Lower East Side location. But despite the company's best efforts,100 years after Aron Streit opened his matzo business on Pitt Street, space is still an issue. Streit's simply needs more, preferably horizontal, space to remain competitive, and as of January 2015, they have decided to move from their long-time post on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Streets. At present, they are looking for buildings in New York City and around the tri-state area. Reticent to lose an important local industry, the city itself has take up the search for a new Streit’s location.
 
With minor tweaks, the company has used the same facilities and mechanical blueprints for more than seven decades. Over the years they have gone out of their way to replicate the methodologies and machinery that they have used since the 1930s. Such dedication and attention to detail has created a product that is already being introduced to a fifth generation of consumers. Although Streit’s does not hold a patent on the recipe for matzo, the contents of their iconic pink boxes may be difficult to reproduce outside of their factory at 148-154 Rivington Street. The tenement typology plays a significant role in the way that Streit’s matzos are manufactured, so the particular flavor and texture of Streit's matzos might just be the result of the facility's idiosyncrasies.
 
To be sure, their current process is “not the most efficient.” According to Adler, modern manufacturing would ideally occur horizontally across a single floor, where flour could enter at one end of a large open space, bake in an oven, emerge from the other side, and be loaded directly into trucks at the same level. At the Streit’s factory, flour arriving in bags is taken to the fifth floor, while bulk flour is blown first to silos in the basement and then up to the fifth story with pneumatic pumps. From there, the flour is dumped into mixing stations on either the second or fourth floors, from where it travels down one floor to ovens on either the first or third stories. It then goes upstairs or downstairs to the packing station on the second floor, and finally returns to the first floor, where it is loaded, quickly but with difficulty, onto a truck waiting in Lower East Side traffic. If the substance in question is matzo meal, it moves from the second floor cooling racks to the sixth floor holding tanks, and then works its way back down six more stories. A piece of flour entering the factory can gain and lose potential energy two or three times in its life as it transitions from flour to matzo.
 
In the early nineteenth century, many New York City blocks were divided into lots twenty-five feet wide and one hundred feet deep. According to Adler, the factory buildings’ footprints approximate these dimensions. However, modern baking equipment requires significantly more room. He says, “what (machinery) we have in seventy-five feet of building space they couldn’t build for me anymore. The buildings prevent us from doing a lot of modernization.”
 
On the other hand, the lack of floor space has required the company to distribute its machines across the various stories, which, in turn, dictates how the matzo tastes. Adler maintains that the ovens on first and third stories are almost identical, but they produce matzos that look and taste slightly different. He laments warmly, “That’s also been one of the reasons people have been hesitant to move the factory. No matter what the scientists and the engineers say, if we can't get it to taste the same on two different floors in the same building with almost identical equipment, what’s it really gonna taste like in a new factory with modern equipment?”
 
Regardless of the elevation of origination, all of their matzos come out tasting like they were made at Streit’s. The ratio of water to flour is slightly different on the second floor mixing room than it is in the fourth floor mixing room. Same water, same flour. But because the moisture is slightly different between the floors, during the day the bakers are constantly readjusting the meters based on humidity. When Adler first began working at the factory, the senior mixer was an elderly gentleman who had specific recipes for each floor. Now everything is done by feel, because “the men seem to know; they can tell if the bucket of flour and water needs a little more of one than the other.”
 
Perhaps the real common denominator is one of the two ingredients. While the wheat originates from various locations around the region, the recipe calls for good old New York City tap water. The water is filtered to ensure that it is kosher, but the owners believe that there is something indelible in source. When they have considered what it would mean to move the factory out of the Lower East Side, they have taken their water into serious consideration. One of their engineers, who had previously worked for a large soda manufacturing company, assured Streit’s that with reverse osmosis they could duplicate New York City’s water anywhere they go. They will soon find out what modern engineering can do.
 
Although the building and equipment are from another era, Streit’s has remained relevant by offering a vast array of year-round items in addition to their Passover line. They are also online. However, they do not intend to use their website for sales. Instead, the website is used as a communications tool. Adler says that customers are surprised to find that the company always responds. Every email and letter is read by one of the family members who will personally respond within a day or two.
 
As Streit’s has only one major competitor in the American mazto industry, they are not looking to break into wildly new markets. Their website’s other main function is to encourage the public to think of Streit’s as a family-run business, which they are. In fact, they are the only family-run matzo company in the United States. The business world has also picked up on this message. In The Power of Simplicity, a business management textbook, author Jack Trout cites Streit’s in his discussion about differentiation, a strategy that he suggests works just as well as for midsize and small businesses as it does for large companies.
 
Like many local industrialists, Streit’s considered relocating many times. Soaring real estate prices, gentrification, and rezoning make New York City less-than-ideal for light manufacturing. Streit’s Matzos sits on valuable property that other small businesses could not dream of acquiring. This is part of the latent fruit born of the American Dream. Whereas fifteen years ago Adler worried his way to the factory’s front door, crack viles crunching underfoot, recently the neighborhood has undergone a revival. Businesses are back, and the streets are alive. However, it is not quite a renaissance of the good old days. The Lower East Side is now a stage for peroxide, pumps and pearls, and bubbies in babushkas won’t be coming back any time soon.
 
With boutique hotels popping up around many corners, Adler has been concerned less with safety, and more with the onus of history. Considering the cycles that they have witnessed, Streit’s is also aware that they provide the local environs with a stabilizing presence. In the past, some of their long-time neighbors complained about manufacturing noises, but now they kvetch about the prospect of more high-end residences, cars and late-nights bars.
 
Adler says that the move could take place anywhere from May to July 2015. In the meantime, the factory and the Rivington retail store will remain open through the spring holiday, and Streit’s Rabbi Kirshner is guiding tours of the facilities on an individual basis. Tours can be scheduled for any day that the factory is open, Sunday through Thursday.  
 
(April, 2011, updated January 2015)