Days of Wine and Matzos How a Cincinnati family became the name in kosher foods.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – In early April, when Passover starts, millions of Jewish families set their tables with products from the premier name in kosher foods: Manischewitz. But while Passover is rich in storytelling and history, few people know the story behind Manischewitz itself--or how the name came to be so well known.
The Manischewitz tale begins with Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz. His surname in his native Russia was Abramson, but he purchased the passport of a dead man named Manischewitz to gain passage to America in 1888. He settled in Cincinnati, where the local Jewish community was having trouble finding Passover matzos, so the rabbi began baking them himself in his basement. When other bakers began copying his original product name, Cincinnati Matzos, he ran ads urging customers to look for his name, and the Manischewitz brand was born.
As sales increased, Rabbi Manischewitz opened a factory with mechanized, continuous-feed gas ovens--a big step up from the coal stoves used by traditional matzo bakeries. But some local Jewish authorities objected, saying machine-made matzos weren't kosher. "They said it should be handmade, because the consciousness of the person making the matzo was very important," explains Edith Best, the rabbi's great-granddaughter. "His argument was that if a religious person was operating the machine, it was okay. He ended up hiring his own board of rabbis, who certified the products as kosher." That outcome transformed matzos from a local artisanal item into a high-volume product suitable for widespread retail sale--a crucial development as Jewish enclaves spread across America.
Rabbi Manischewitz died in 1914, leaving the company to his five sons, who took it public in 1923. Despite taking a hit in the Depression--profits plummeted from $272,000 in 1929 to $177,000 in 1930--the company built a new factory in New Jersey in 1932. Manischewitz had one of its proudest moments that same year, when it was able to ship two million pounds of matzos to Russia for Passover, a rare exception to the Soviet Union's ban on imported foods.
Manischewitz began to branch out around 1940, introducing kosher crackers, soups, and canned goods. The most lucrative endeavor turned out to be Manischewitz wines, which were produced by an outside company under a licensing agreement and eventually attracted oenophiles' attention beyond the Jewish market. (The wines' ad slogan, "Man, oh, Manischewitz," became so iconic that Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan was heard exclaiming it during his 1973 moonwalk--you can't buy that kind of marketing!) Bernard Manischewitz, the founder's grandson, expanded the line further over subsequent decades, adding dozens of items, including gefilte fish, borscht, and frozen foods, and always looking for more. "One time he brought home this jelly for me to try," recalls his second wife, Beatrice. "I said, 'Oh, Bern, this is like something my grandmother used to make. It'll be a big hit!' But the company taste panel voted it down."
Manischewitz has had its share of controversy over the years, including accusations of hidden assets in 1958, "diet" matzos that had to be withdrawn in 1974 when a federal judge ruled they weren't low calorie, and the occasional family conflict that spilled over into the company ("You know how that can be," says Beatrice Manischewitz). With no obvious successors, Bernard sold the company to the private Kohlberg & Co. for $42.5 million in 1990, when Manischewitz had an 80% share of the domestic matzo market. In 1998, Manischewitz was sold again, this time to R.A.B. Holdings. It remains America's largest kosher brand, and the world's top matzo manufacturer, with estimated annual sales of $60 million. To that we say, mazel tov!