How The Matzo Crumbles: Iconic Streit's Factory To Leave Manhattan | KERA News

How The Matzo Crumbles: Iconic Streit's Factory To Leave Manhattan

Apr 2, 2015
Originally published on April 7, 2015 2:47 pm

This Passover holiday marks the end of an era for an iconic matzo factory in New York City.

Streit's has been baking matzo — the unleavened bread that Jews eat during the eight days of Passover — in the same factory on the Lower East Side for 90 years. But the company announced it will move production to a new, modern factory after the holiday.

That's a blow to Streit's loyal customers, who insist it tastes better than other brands.

"The supermarkets don't have the stuff, you could come here," says Hedy Weinberger, who says she's been doing her Passover shopping at Streit's factory for more than half a century. "And you smell the matzo," says Weinberger. "You're gonna miss that."

"It was sort of the last holdout in the neighborhood," says Megan Schlow, who has lived on the Lower East Side for 30 years. "It was, I guess, sort of inevitable."

Streit's did hold out — for decades, even as other Jewish-owned businesses moved away from the neighborhood, which was the "capital of Jewish America," as the Library of Congress put it, at the turn of the 20thcentury. These days, the kosher butchers and grocers have been replaced by high-end restaurants, bars and apartments. But Streit's stayed put, in a factory carved out of four tenement apartment buildings.

Founder Aron Streit moved the company to Rivington Street in 1925. The matzo is still baked in ovens that date from before World War II. The factory is now way too small by modern standards. So the company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to ship matzo to its own off-site warehouse.

"We could absorb some of the cost," says Aron Yagoda, Streit's great-grandson, one of several cousins who own and run the business today. "But the real problem is we can't fix the ovens anymore. And every day we come in, it's a blessing the ovens even turn on."

Shortly after Passover, the company will shut off these ovens for good. But co-owner Aaron Gross insists the Streit family recipe will move with them.

"We're the butt of a lot of jokes with matzo," says Gross. "It's the bread of affliction. People say it's tough to eat for eight days. But we have many consumers that [say], forget Passover. They eat it because they choose to eat it."

Still, there are reasons to worry that something may be lost in the move.

"The water we use is New York City water, which is the best water in the world," longtime employee Tony Zapata says in an interview from the documentary film Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream. "You want Jersey water?" asks Zapata. "Fine — you buy matzos from Jersey. That's on you. We have quality."

He's alluding to Manischewitz, the biggest matzo company in the world, based in New Jersey. To see if anyone else could tell the difference, we enlisted taste testers: Sarah Lohman, a food writer and educator who writes the blog at Four Pounds Flour, and Annie Polland, senior vice president at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. And we gave them Matzo No. 1.

"That's a good snap," Lohman says. But Polland isn't impressed. "As my grandmother would say, this is as dry as my life," she says of the first option.

Then we gave them Matzo No. 2. "It has a little bit of a toasty flavor," Polland says. Lohman agrees. "It tastes more like a cracker, No. 2," Lohman says, "whereas [No.] 1 kind of just tastes more like dry flour."

Matzo No. 2 — as they both guess correctly — is Streit's.

Polland says the closing of the factory is a real loss for the neighborhood.

"For so long, for decades, Jews have been coming back here at springtime to kind of do this Passover shopping," Polland says. "And Streit's was like a central part of that pilgrimage, if you will. So I think it not being here, there's something really sad about it."

But as Lohman points out, the Lower East Side has changed many times before. And Streit's isn't going out of business. "We aren't really losing this product, or this family, or this business," she says. "It's still very much a part of New York history and Jewish history in America."

Streit's owners won't say exactly where in the New York area they are planning to move. But if they do it right, they say that next Passover, their customers won't even notice the difference.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will begin to celebrate Passover, also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In this country, about a third of all unleavened bread, or matzo, comes from a single factory in New York. For 90 years, Streit's Matzos has been baking at the same location on the Lower East Side. Loyal customers insist that matzo taste better than other brands. But now Streit's is leaving its longtime factory, and as NPR's Joel Rose reports, its customers are mourning.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you think all matzo tastes the same, Streit's customers beg to differ. Every year, hundreds of them stock up for the Passover holiday, when Jews are supposed to eat only unleavened bread for eight days, at the company's factory on the Lower East Side.

JACKIE BERKOWITZ: We like the taste.

HEDY WEINBERGER: The supermarkets don't have the stuff, you could come here. And you smell the matzo as - yes, you're going to miss that.

MEGAN SCHLOW: It was sort of the last holdout in the neighborhood. I mean it was, I guess, sort of inevitable.

ROSE: Jackie Berkowitz, Hedy Weinberger and Megan Schlow. Streit's did hold out for decades, even as other Jewish-owned businesses moved away from the Lower East Side and high-end restaurants, bars and apartments took their place. But Streit's stayed put in a factory carved out of four tenement apartment buildings. They're still baking in an oven that dates from before World War II.

AARON GROSS: The matzo cooks for about 800, 900 degrees, for about a minute and 45 seconds.

ROSE: This is Aaron Gross, one of several cousins who own and runs Streit's. His great-great-grandfather opened this factory in 1925. It is now way too small by modern standards, so the company has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to ship matzo to its own off-site warehouse. Co-owner Aron Yagoda says that's one cost his competitors don't have.

ARON YAGODA: We could absorb some of the cost, but the real problem is we can't fix the ovens anymore. And every day we come in, it's a blessing that the ovens even turn on.

ROSE: Shortly after Passover, the company will shut-off these ovens for good. But Aaron Gross insists the Streit family recipe will move with them.

GROSS: We're the butt of a lot of jokes with matzo. It's the bread of affliction. You know, people say, oh, it's tough - it's tough to eat for eight days. But we have many, many consumers that - forget Passover, they eat it because they choose to eat it.

ROSE: But there are reasons to worry that something might be lost in the move. Here's longtime employee Tony Zapata in a clip from the documentary film "Streit's: Matzo And The American Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STREIT'S: MATZO AND THE AMERICAN DREAM")

TONY ZAPATA: The water we use is New York City water, which is the best water in the world. You want Jersey water? Fine. You buy matzos from Jersey. That's on you. We have quality.

ROSE: Zapata is alluding to Manischewitz, the biggest matzo the company in the world, based in New Jersey. To see if anyone else could tell the difference, we enlisted some taste testers - Sarah Lohman, a food writer and educator, and Annie Polland from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

And we give them matzo number one.

SARAH LOHMAN: That's a good snap. Now, dry? Your face is in actual pain.

ANNIE POLLAND: As my grandmother would say, this is as dry as my life.

Lohman: (Laughter).

ROSE: And then, matzo number two.

Lohman: I'm a little shocked to say the flavor's different.

POLLAND: It totally is different. It has a little bit of a toasty flavor.

Lohman: It tastes more like a cracker, number two, whereas one kind of just tastes more like dry flour. This one is Streit's, right?

POLLAND: I think so.

Lohman: What is the answer?

ROSE: Yeah, you guys are right. This is the Streit's.

(CHEERING)

ROSE: Annie Polland says the closing of the factory is a real loss for the neighborhood.

POLLAND: For so long, for decades, Jews have been coming back here at springtime to kind of do this Passover shopping. And Streit's was like, a central part of that, I guess pilgrimage, if you will. So I think it not being here, there's something really sad about it.

ROSE: Streit's owners won't say exactly where in the New York area they are planning to move, but if they do it right, they say that next Passover their customers won't even notice the difference. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.