I quickly duck as 120 sheets of matzo, arranged in a dozen neat stacks of 10, come straight toward my head. Thankfully, the conveyer belt hanging from the ceiling of the Streit’s matzo factory is only moving about as fast as a mechanical toy train in a suburban dad’s basement, so my slow reflexes don’t prove to be a hazard.
Aaron Gross, a fifth-generation member of the matzo-making Streit family, doesn’t even flinch as he moves aside and points out the differences in the seemingly identical pieces on the conveyer belt, highlighting the outer burnt pieces against the lighter-colored ones.
“None of our matzo is the same. Every box is a little different. It’s like a snowflake,” Gross says as he escorts me through the Rivington Street factory that has churned out 2.5 to 3 million pounds of matzo in preparation for Passover 2015 (5775 if we’re going by the Hebrew calendar).
His words are the most loving, poetic remark I’ve ever heard in regards to matzo, arguably the least delicious food in a gustatory culture that offers latkes, brisket, and bagels.
Today, Gross oversees the Streit’s company along with two other family members, Aron Yagoda and Alan Adler from the fourth generation.
These men will be leading Streit’s move in May, after announcing the sale of the factory to an unnamed real estate developer in January. Streit’s will consolidate at its Moonachie, New Jersey, warehouse and factory, where it also produces many non-matzo products, including soup and potato pancake mixes.
They are also shopping for a new facility. “We haven’t announced where we’re going, but we have a couple of places in mind” is all Gross says, though he notes they have looked in Rockland, Orange, and Westchester counties.
It’s by no means the fault of the Streit’s company that matzo is mostly associated with blandness and constipation. The Bible is to blame.
According to the Torah, Moses and the Jews had to flee Egypt so suddenly that their bread didn’t have time to rise; hence, the ritual of eating unleavened bread, matzo, during the eight-day celebration of the exodus. Flour made from one of five types of grains and water are the only ingredients permitted.
Specifically at Streit’s, they make batches with 80 pounds of flour and 30 pounds of water. To describe the process as painstaking is an understatement. “From the time the flour and the water first touch to the time it’s fully cooked and out of the oven, it needs to be done within 18 minutes,” explains Gross.
The dough must also be stretched without it breaking or ripping. Adding to the list of requirements, the mixers and blades must be cleaned each time after a batch of dough is made. Streit’s does that enough times to churn out matzo products at the rate of 20,000 pounds a day when the factory is preparing for Passover, says Gross.
Despite the fact that matzo is one of the few things I do not enjoy eating, I am completely enthralled by the Streit’s matzo factory. There’s something special, dare I say religious, about witnessing some of the last sheets of matzo to be made at the Lower East Side Streit’s factory, especially since the space and machinery are still pieces of the past.
Gross and I are standing by the end of an oven that’s 72 feet-long and older than Queen Elizabeth. It’s been baking matzo at a piping hot 900 degrees since Aron Streit opened the factory here in 1925.
Nine years earlier and a few blocks over on Pitt Street, Streit began laying the foundation for a matzo empire in 1916.
With an oven that took up over two stories, he and partner Rabbi Weinberger began making matzo by hand.
When he moved in 1925, he could not have imagined that his brand would become synonymous with Passover for American Jews. Nor, that despite expanding into six stories and into four buildings, Rivington Street would not fulfill the Streit’s baking needs.
The building shows the wear and tear of makeshift expansion, but it still functions remarkably well.
Gross and I climb a ladder to get to the second floor to see where the matzo dough is mixed during Passover. One machine that rolls and stretches the dough is from 1939.
Another that formerly was used to package matzo farfel (a matzo crumble) actually has wooden parts. “He probably got it used even then [in 1925],” Gross tells me. The “he” is Streit, his great-great-grandfather.
The Streit’s factory is one of the last vestiges of the Lower East Side that was once the crowded knish- and tenement-filled soul of America’s burgeoning Jewish community. It has largely given way to trendy restaurants, some of which do nod to the neighborhood’s past—like Schapiro’s—but also plenty of bars, boutiques, and a feminist-minded sex shop that do not.
Up until the sale, the gentrification of the Lower East Side had not appeared to rub off on the Streit’s matzo factory.
The office is filled with piles of papers that sit on big, worn oak desks that remind me of the one my grandpa had in his bedroom, which completely go against any sleek modern aesthetic.
Portraits of Aron Streit and his wife, Nettie, hang along with many other old photos of Streit’s descendants. The factory walls are white cinderblock and ramps connect floors of different levels, a result of Streit’s unplanned expansion to different buildings next door as the company grew over 90 years.
Gross guides me over to a window at an awkward angle by a blasting fan to see the tiny sliver of a courtyard—really, more like a shaft—that lets you see the old exteriors of the four tenement apartments that have now been connected into the Streit’s complex. “It’s like a look back in time,” Gross tells me proudly.
The many affectionate lamentations about Streit’s shutting down this factory are, perhaps inadvertently, tinged with guilt.
“People say ‘I can’t believe you’re leaving.’ I ask when was the last time you were here. They say ‘Maybe 30 years ago.’ That’s why [we’re leaving],” Gross tells me.
Of all people, he understands that visiting the Streit’s factory on the Lower East Side is “an experience,” but that alone won’t sustain a business. “People love it and relish it, but it isn’t justification for staying here. It doesn’t translate to dollars and cents.” In short, nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills.
For him, staying on the Lower East Side just to provide a few more sweet memories isn’t worth risking Streit’s viability.
In fact, he seems a bit defensive, or at least tired of explaining why they’re leaving. “It’s not that we can’t do it here. We know how to make matzo in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in these confines better than anybody else could do it in the world,” he says.
From a business perspective, though, it’s an added hurdle. “None of our competition has to manufacture this way.”
While many of the big matzo companies started off family-run, they haven’t stayed that way.
Manischewitz, one of Streit’s biggest domestic competitors in the matzo market and kosher foods market in general, was bought by an arm of Bain Capital last Passover.
Manischewitz already owns another matzo competitor, Horowitz Margareten. (In a weird twist of Jewish geography, Gross’s grandfather, who married into the Streit’s family, had a brother who married into Manischewitz and another brother who married a Horowitz daughter from the Horowitz Margareten matzo clan.)
U.S. competition isn’t the only concern now for Streit’s either. There are also Israeli matzo manufacturers, many of which “just drop shipment in for Passover on the cheap and undercut us,” explains Gross.
Gross doesn’t exactly answer when I ask if Streit’s is priced higher than other brands. “The cost to make it is way more than anyone else. We make it on six stories. We load it onto the street. We’re a union shop. The cost of doing business between health insurance [and] labor rates has gone up so much over the past five years,” he explains.
At this point, sticking in the Lower East Side is an unnecessary financial burden. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year just taking our product to our warehouse,” he says.
Gross is pragmatic because he feels an obligation to do right by his great-great-grandfather and the generations before him. “We’re descendants of Aron Streit. They [the generations] put in a lot of work and sweat, and it’s our job to build upon it,” he said.
His loyalty isn’t just to his ancestors. “We have an added commitment to our consumer base. We feel indebted to them and also a great responsibility.” He tells me how a woman recently visited the factory for her 33rd birthday with her mother. They traveled 12 hours from Tennessee via bus, he says.
The affection for their customers is clear. Gross and Yagoda tell me how they personally respond to every consumer query, good or bad.
They chuckle about a handwritten note from a woman who was angry a box of matzo farfel spilled on her groceries when she, herself, had opened the box and tossed it in her shopping bag. They still gave her a refund.
But these descendants of Aron Streit don’t want to be hemmed in by the past, either.
They are eager to keep making matzo and to experiment with the culinary potential, possibly with oat or quinoa flour. “We’ve been kind of limited here,” he admits. “There are a lot of things we’re excited to have and tinker with in a new facility that we’ve never been able to do.”
When I leave, I notice some graffiti on the wall of the Streit’s factory. I can’t tell if it’s been commissioned by Streit’s or is part of the mélange of Lower East Side street art, but the words—a twist on Robert Frost’s famous line—are all too fitting for Streit’s departure. “Nothing bold can stay.”