Century-old NYC matzo factory faces a high-tech future

Verena Dobnik
Associated Press

New York — The last Passover matzos have rolled out of a century-old bakery on Manhattan's Lower East Side — a neighborhood that's been dubbed the "Jewish Plymouth Rock."

The Streit's factory is the oldest in the nation still churning out the unleavened flatbread that's essential for Jewish holidays. About 2.5 million pounds of matzos were baked for April's Passover holiday and distributed worldwide.

Streit's is planning to shut down its nine-decade-old ovens by year's end and move to a 21st-century computerized plant somewhere in the New York area. The contract has yet to be signed.

"For decades, immigrant Jews and their descendants have made pilgrimages back to the Lower East Side — the Jewish Plymouth Rock — to reconnect with their history and, of course, delight in the shopping and eating that gives the neighborhood its flavor," said Annie Polland, a historian at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "With the Streit's closure, you have a significant chapter of Jewish Lower East Side history closing."

The bakery first opened during World War I, serving struggling Jewish immigrants. By 1925, the business moved to Rivington Street, where the original assembly line winds through four six-story buildings — once overcrowded tenements with narrow, rickety stairs that are still used.

This file photo from the early 1960s, provided by the Streit’s factory in New York, shows the storefront of the matzo factory at the corner of Rivington and Suffolk streets in New York’s Lower East Side. Streit’s is the oldest factory building in the United States where the unleavened flatbread that’s an essential element of Jewish holidays is still churned out. Nearly 2.5 million matzos were baked for April’s Passover holiday, and distributed worldwide.

But the 48,000-square-foot factory doesn't live off nostalgia. It's a smartly run family business with annual sales topping $20 million on about 5 million pounds of matzos sold around the country and worldwide.

The other mass manufacturer of matzos in the U.S. is Manischewitz, with Israeli imports and traditional round handmade crackers also filling store shelves.

Demand is growing for matzos even among non-Jews who enjoy them as a healthy snack baked with no fat or artificial additives, and the old factory simply cannot keep up, said Aaron Gross, head of sales and marketing at Streit's and one of three cousins running the day-to-day operations.

"I'm fifth generation, and if we want this to last another five generations, we need to make sure that we strengthen the company to remain relevant in a very competitive market," said Gross, the great-great-grandson of Aron Streit, who started the business after emigrating from Austria.

"The name Streit's conjures up so many happy memories of not only my childhood but of the decades since," says Karen Kriendler Nelson, whose relatives organized a pre-Passover family reunion at the factory.

The current Streit's production line dates back to the 1930s and the baking process is strictly timed.

It may take no more than 18 minutes from the moment the flour and water are mixed to when matzos emerge from a gas-fired, tunnel-like oven to cool in metal baskets that hang off rusty tracks, inching slowly to the packaging operation. Beyond the 18 minutes, the dough rises — forbidden for this food that symbolizes the biblical flight of the Jews from Egypt, who were so rushed they had no time to finish baking their "bread of affliction."

"Nothing changes at Streit's," declared Rabbi Mayer Kirshner, who oversees the factory's kosher certification.

Some of the nearly 60 workers represent a wave of immigrants from former Soviet republics, like machine operator Michael Abramov, who was born in Uzbekistan. He's been at Streit's for 25 years — the only job he's ever had in America.

"I'm not bored. I love this work. This is important. It's our religion — it's the history of the Jews," said the 61-year-old Queens resident.

Operations on Rivington Street will proceed until the new plant is running with state-of-the-art equipment that will speed up production.

These are not your great-grandmother's matzos, kneaded and shaped by hand. Mass-produced and machine-packaged, they're a modern effort to preserve tradition. But tradition is quickly disappearing in the neighborhood that was home to Jewish immigrants for much of the 20th century. Property values have skyrocketed, with galleries, boutiques and restaurants opening in renovated tenements. The Streit's property — up for sale — is worth tens of millions of dollars.

The employees are all being offered jobs at the new location, where Streit's will preserve its motto — "the taste of a memory."