Pre-Passover is not the ideal time to chat with the CEO of Manischewitz. He’s a bit busy preparing for the Thanksgiving of the kosher foods world. According to the trade publication, Kosher Food Today, 40 percent of the industry’s $305,000,000,000 (yes, that’s billion)in annual sales happen around Passover. This year, as in the past several, the competition for those holiday dollars is a fierce one. Kosher Food Today reports that nearly 400 new products are debuting for Passover 5773.
But Paul Bensabat, co-CEO and co-president of Manischewitz (along with his business partner, Alain Bankier), made the time for an interview because he wants to send a message. While Manischewitz is celebrating its 125th anniversary with pride, it is also in the middle of a major makeover.
Founded in Cincinnati by Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz, the company started as a matzah bakery. In her book, Manischewitz: The Matzo Family, Laura Manischewitz Alpern writes, “It was a crisp March morning in 1888. Behr paused in the doorway, on his way to work, and turned to speak to his wife, who stood stoutly behind him as she did every morning, waiting to close the door after him. ‘I’m going to bake matzos this year, and sell them to our community, and maybe to others too. We’ll see how it goes.’ ”
It went and went, and kept on going. By 1900, Manischewitz had perfected his packaging and was shipping matzah to England, Japan, France, Hungary, Egypt and New Zealand. In the early 1940s, in the middle of World War II, the rabbi’s heirs expanded their kosher food line. A licensing deal with Monarch Wine created the now legendary Manischewitz Wines. Noodles, pickles, gefilte fish, borscht and soup products followed. By the early 1950s, Manischewitz had become synonymous with kosher food and was the go-to brand for Jewish holiday celebrations.
Fifty years passed before Manischewitz had any real competition. While changes within the company had occurred, the more impactful changes came from consumers. Jews — kosher and otherwise — now have more adventurous palates and want healthier foods. New companies sprang up to fill that niche and supermarket shelves soon became stocked with their products, challenging Manischewitz’s dominance.
Enter Bankier and Bensabat. Both men were born in Morocco and educated at American universities. Together, they formed Saveur Food Group, one of those gourmet kosher companies competing with Manischewitz. In 2008, the two companies merged and, since 2010, Bankier and Bensabat have been co-presidents and co-CEOs of The Manischewitz Company.
While Manischewitz was still profitable, its products were, well, stale. “It was getting pretty dusty and had some technical issues,” Bensabat says of Manischewitz’s product line. “The biggest problem was that the products were not meeting the palates of today’s consumer.”
The solution? New products, improved recipes and the latest technology. While Bensabat declined to answer questions about the company’s financial investment in those ventures, he spoke freely about the strategy behind them. This, he says, is part of the Manischewitz message: Old favorites are better and new favorites await.
“First, we improved our comfort food items,” Bensabat explains. “We made the best gefilte fish and potato pancakes, but the recipes hadn’t been looked at in a while, so we looked and said, ‘Aha, we can make that better.’ And we did.”
Next came the green and white “L’Chaim” icon that appears on each Manischewitz product and lists its specific health benefits. “Matzah, for example, is low-sodium and low-fat and has no sugar, cholesterol or preservatives,” Bensabat says. “You want healthy? We have healthy — and you’ve been eating it all of your life. But how would you know if we didn’t tell you?”
Unhealthy ingredients were in some Manischewitz products. “Things like sulfites in coconut macaroons,” Bensabat says, “and preservatives and stabilizers in gefilte fish were fine many years ago. But now? No way. We don’t want them in our food. They have to go. We could find a better way to make them. And we did.”
They also found ways to make gluten-free items. However, those products are not kosher for Passover — yet. The challenge is that many grains used in gluten-free products are not Pesadichah. Manischewitz — and its competitors — are working to resolve that challenge.
Another focus: new products. For that, Bensabat and Bankier are breaking a centuries-long paradigm. Most American kosher food mirrors Ashkenazic culinary traditions — but it doesn’t have to.
With two Sephardic Jews at the helm, Manischewitz is producing items evocative of the Mediterranean flavors they ate in their mothers’ Moroccan kitchens. New varieties of gefilte fish and matzah are infused with rosemary, oregano and olive oil — and then are the Moroccan fish “meatballs.”
“Until I came to America, I never heard of gefilte fish,” Bensabat says. “Our version is Moroccan fish ‘meatballs.’ The base ingredients are almost the same, but the shape is like a meatball. They are made with tomato sauce, cumin and other spices. Now, was this a risk to mess around with everyone’s beloved gefilte fish? Yes. But we knew, Alain and I, that this would be a home run.”
They were right. Manischewitz’s Moroccan fish “meatballs” made headlines in the Wall Street Journal and flew off the shelves when they were introduced in 2011. So did the newly Mediterranean-ized sardines. So did the red velvet Pesadichah cake mix, which is not Mediterranean but deeply American and, along with the red velvet macaroons introduced this year, emblematic of the new Manischewitz strategy of making foods that people like not only Pesadichah but kosher for everyday life.
Another change for 2013 starts where Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz started: perfecting matzah. The co-CEOs spent millions of dollars on new baking technology at their Newark factory. They made the matzah crunchier and a tad thinner. Why thinner? For their next innovation: new packaging that protects matzah’s freshness. Each box will now contain matzah divided into three stay-fresh bags. “One box used to have 15 slices wrapped in thin plastic and there were two of those per box,” Bensabat says. “But there was no good way to close that wrapping and keep the matzah from going stale. We said, ‘We can do this better.’ And we did. We changed the matzah to be slightly thinner, so now we can fit 18 pieces in one box with six in each stay-fresh pouch.”
The new boxes, starting with plain matzah, will be unveiled in 2013.
What’s next for Manischewitz? The co-CEOs plan to break further into two markets: non-kosher Jews and non-Jewish customers. “We are going to make everything delicious and healthy, so you’ll say, ‘By the way, this is kosher,’ ” Bensabat promises. “We are going to make kosher food awesome.”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor for Special Sections. This article originally appeared in "Passover Palate," a Jewish Exponent special section.