Published On: Tue, Jun 23rd, 2015

Fifty Years Later Manischewitz Is In Again Chelsea Swingers Love It

David Sugarman MANISHEWITZ

“Manischewitz is hip” was the buzz around the Chelsea Market party. “We want people to know that we’re much more than matzah & gefiltefish. We want not just Jewish people to be the consumers of this company’s food.” Therefore, they listened to the younger voices among them and decided to create a Manischewitz event right in the hot spot of Chelsea Market on 16th Street in lower Manhattan.

I set with David Sugarman, president and CEO of The Manischewitz Company, to hear about how the company is doing today.

– Growing up Jewish in Israel, and 30 years now in America, it’s very hard for me to even think about Manischewitz being hip, but it is a very good angle to take. Could you discuss the difference between the Jewish consumers today in comparison to the past, as you see it?

“Yes, I think today, the Jewish consumer is tracking with the non-Jewish consumer, in that, the things they care more and more about are healthier foods. We have created things like gluten free matzah that we are currently selling. We have GMO-free items that we have come up with. I think the Jewish consumer is becoming more discerning with their taste. They want it to taste great and they want it to also be possible for it to be a little bit healthier than it’s been before, and those are things that we are working on and we are going to be working on. We have our core items that the Jewish consumer has grown up with and loved, and we are expanding into more modern areas like GMO-free and gluten-free items, which we are doing more and more of. Those are becoming a more important part of our business.”

–  I’m sure Manischewitz is looking at the Jewish community and the state of the Jewish people in the United States in conjunction with the food. But also checking their psychological, political, and cultural situation in America.

“I honestly don’t know the story on that particular topic. What you should know is that I’m a Canadian that has been living in the US now for a couple of months, two and a half months, so I don’t have the story to speak specifically about the Jewish population and their beliefs.
I think there is better authority on that. We find that the Jewish population or community is very much engaged with our products and certainly around the major Jewish holidays we get their absolute full attention. We are working very hard to get Manischewitz top of mind, outside of the traditional holidays Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and other holidays. But I don’t think I’m the authority to talk about how the Jewish community is tracking one way or another.”
OK, What about the Canadian people?

“I think that we are seeing it mirroring the general population. I think the Jewish community, including the Orthodox part of the community, is engaging with technology more than they have before. I think the Jewish community is becoming more “foodie” again, looking for unique items that can be kosher, items that you wouldn’t think of as kosher, and I think they are becoming more savvy, more savvy in their food tastes and desires.

– The Manischewitz wine. As kids, we liked a little wine. Now if you give me a glass of Manischewitz wine for Kiddush, I’ll say no, it give me headaches. Was it changed for the better?

“The Manischewitz wine we licensed to a company called Constellation Brands so they retain the marketing control over the wine. We do not produce the wine any longer. We have a licensing arrangement with this company. Manischewitz is totally food now.”
– When you look through the population of the people that you serve or cater to, who are your consumers?

“We have people that buy kosher food all year round. We have those who are Jewish, but non-kosher, who come into the kosher section for the holidays to buy Manischewitz for their family, so they can get everyone around the dinner table just as it was when they were growing up with their Zeidi and what that meant to them. That’s one group of consumers we have. Then we have the non-Jewish consumer that buys our products because they see them as the high quality products they are. They taste very good and they are quite unique.”

Okay, so you would say that your consumers range from teenagers to young professionals to older people and from very poor to very rich.

“Yes, the consumer itself, the person who is actually consuming our products is certainly from young to very old and the types of product that those people are buying will differ. Something like the gefiltefish, we would find bought by typically older consumers. Although, we are getting a big resurgence now from the younger consumers, discovering gefiltefish for the first time, and we are very happy for that. We have our products really span the whole horizon of certainly within the Jewish community.”


– So different, through the ages.

“Yes”

"The Manischewitz Experience" Cooking Demo 1511

– Tell me more about the changes in their purchases and buying habits; they used to go for the shmaltz, what do they go for now?

“There are certain categories of consumers, like the mature consumer, that like gefiltefish. We sell a lot of gefiltefish, and it tends to be more from the older consumer and, as I stated, the younger consumers are moving into it. The younger consumers are more conscious of the types of things they purchase from a healthier perspective, so they are moving away from the, as you said, shmaltz, and moving toward healthier items.

Some of the items [they like] are perhaps gluten free, some are organic, but they are still very much engaged with our traditional items, and something like our traditional matzah has been a very high quality natural simple ingredient item since the beginning of making matzah back in Egypt, so that hasn’t really changed. So we are getting people coming in buying matzah, and perhaps buying other types of crackers, and they are seeing matzah now as more permissible to put on their table for their families.”

–  I know that non-Jews started buying kosher. Why?

“We make some very good, high quality items like our soups and soup blocks that are universally accepted in our population. Beyond the whole idea of kosher is the extra degree of certainty over the quality and food safety of the product. I think consumers are aware of that. And those are very important aspects of our product, obviously. We make things kosher and the things we have, they know that extra level of inspection on our items ensures there are no issues with anything we are selling. I think that means something to consumers.”

 Is it a fact that more food inspections cause the product to become more expensive in comparison to other company’s products, like crackers and soups and so on?

“Certainly, running a company where everything is so sure, with kosher for Passover and higher standards, has involved increased costs. Certain ingredients cost more, but, for the most part, I think the efficiency within our production facilities enables us to keep any price differences to a minimum. Technically, we sell very high quality products and there is difference in price between high quality products and some lower quality products, so I think most high quality items are price competitive.”

In terms of new requests, do you get special requests for new products from your clients or customers?

” Yes.”

 What would be an example of a new request?

“I mean, with the items we produce specifically for our customers, some can be dietary for them, but we get requests from customers and consumers for new flavors. If you look at our macaroon line, we came up with a new flavor every year. This past year we came up with a carrot-cake macaroon, which was a huge success story for us. We try to keep things fresh and modern without losing the link back to our roots, and we are always coming out with a new variety, a new spin on something that we do that we have done before, driven internally by our marketing department and our development department. Sometimes it’s driven by our customers, our retailers, or sometimes driven by our consumers. It could come off our Facebook page; it could be an idea. We are looking to keep it fresh, because you want, just like in any other grocery store, you want some excitement in the kosher section as well.”

MANISHEWITZ matzo farfel with feta

So, in terms of the excitement, do you have Facebook and social media running all the time?

“Yes. We do. We have a big outreach program through Facebook. We do specific social media campaigns, and we target particular consumers for particular items. It’s an important part of our business. It’s a good way to kick-in things with our consumers, and I think it also speaks to the modernization of the kosher Jewish consumer, as with everyone else, they are very much engaged in the social media platforms.”

– My son was a college student recently and we went to the stores in the different colleges we visited. I didn’t see any Manischewitz products there. Is it a market that you are looking at or trying to explore?

“Yes, we have. I have been running this business now for two and a half months and we are looking at these alternative channels, and selling into and working on and identifying the items that would do well in these channels, and we are going to be doing more and going after them. It’s not that we don’t think we could do well in these channels, it’s just that we really haven’t put effort into those places. There is certainly more development we can do as the largest kosher food company in North America. We believe there is still more room for us to move up.”

In terms of changes, because you were in Chelsea Market doing an event with marshmallow and chocolate and potato latkes with different flavors and all of that, it was unlike Manischewitz. So I’m thinking, how far can you go, Manischewitz is such a Jewish name, are you thinking about changing the name as part of your new strategy?

“No. Absolutely not. The Manischewitz name on all the floor items is never going to change. That is such an important part of our company, of the Jewish community, and its history in North America and around the world. That’s not going to change. It’s critical that we maintain a connection with the Jewish community, to their roots and their family and their religion; that absolutely critical to us. With that being said, we are looking at items, more identifying items, that we believe can come out of the kosher sections.

“It could be something that we are making already that is in the kosher section; it could be something we are not making yet that we feel would make sense for us to move into the mainstream. And under the Manischewitz label, and the link from the mainstream sections of the grocery store, back to the kosher section, we are pretty far along in identifying what those items will look like. As we look to grow and expand outside of the kosher section, we have some very good ideas we will make available to or share with the world shortly.”

So in other words, we don’t need to wait for Manischewitz to appear with your nice arrangement, like a week or two weeks before the holidays, but we will be able to see Manischewitz in supermarkets or different stores, in different departments like crackers and soups and all of that on the shelves continuously through the year?

” Yes, I mean, we already have many of our items year round in the kosher sections of grocery stores and some of them in other grocery stores where there aren’t necessarily kosher sections. We are specifically working on items that can come to the mainstream that will, as you said, be there in a large way, all year long. Yes, absolutely.”

–  I See. What about colors? One of the things you know is that people eat with their eyes first, so if it’s beige food, if it’s subdued in color and not very appetizing, you are not thrilled to go there, and the Manischewitz colors are not very exciting. Will the colors change?

“The Manischewitz look is a very traditional look, and a gain in the history, the needed history. When we look outside of the kosher section, we will look at our options, and I completely agree with you. The number one reason people buy an item, or certainly buy it a second time, is because of taste, but the number one starting reason to get someone attracted to it is really is that you have to have a good look on the store shelf. And I think our look is a very traditional look and, you know, we are happy with the way our product looks, and we don’t want to lose that connection back in time, really, but that’s not to say other items might see some modernization. We are not going to lose that connection; the core items we make are going to stay the same. It’s too important to our consumers and the Jewish community.”

So it is sort of a very delicate dance that you are trying to do by keeping tradition and yet feeling the heartbeat of the new generation and your need to succeed beyond where you are right now. Manischewitz is a huge company, but it doesn’t seem like it’s as hugely successful as it could be if it dropped a few things behind and became more hip.

“We are taking, as I said, steps to augment what we are doing. I think, in the kosher space, we are extremely successful, and we are going to build off the experience and our history and are now going to leverage that and our name, which is very well known, among Jewish and non-Jewish consumers. We are going to take the steps very thoughtfully and take a couple of select items from the kosher section and look for them to stand on their own. That is one of the focuses of what we are doing, but we are still very focused on continuing the items that we do have in the kosher section, keeping it fresh, introducing extensions of what we are doing now and even introducing some new items that we are not selling in the kosher sections. We do have what you have identified as something different.”

– So who is your biggest competitor?

“It’s quite fragmented. It depends really on the item; there are other larger and smaller companies that sell different, particular items. It’s quite fragmented on that front.”

 So, could you sum this up and give me a secret for your plans, or something that you hope to do, similar to the Chelsea Market event? It was so unlike Manischewitz, it was really trying to be hip and saying, “we are here, we are different, but we are still keeping with tradition; we have new plans for the future.” What could we as customers say we are looking forward to seeing?

“As we identify the one or two items people will be looking to take mainstream, we are working on metric implications around the numbers related to that. The holistic goal is to make the Manischewitz brand a household name, not only with Jewish consumers but also among the mainstream. That is our focus and one of the areas where we spend a lot time, to gain experience and the knowledge it takes to make that successful is what we are working on.

“When we do have the announcement of the item or items that we are bringing into the mainstream, I would love to have another conversation with you about the process we went through to identify those items and our thoughts on how we are going to carry out our marketing plans. That is our focus and we are excited. We have a very short list of items that we are going to be working on.

We are going to do a test market on a region of the US, where we’ll launch the item, and go from there. As we see the potential, we will continue to roll this out further among the United States and around the world.”

Do you use artists to look at your packaging just like you use rabbi’s to examine your products, that is, do you use artists to look at the presentation within your markets?

“We do. We have in-house graphic designers and we also use external agencies or anything that will help us with this.”

–  It seems like you have now more young employees in the business. What happened? Was there shifting around or reshuffling?

“I think we have a pretty normal mix of people, some who have been in our company for 35 years, and certainly some fresher faces, but not any conscious plan or divide. As it relates to that, it’s not a bad thing to have fresh faces, with fresh faces come only fresh ideas. Yeah, I think we have a pretty valid mix of people that have very specific Manischewitz experience and there are people who come to our business with external experience, both of those are critical, and we love to start some of the things that we’ve been talking about today.”

Talking about experience with your products, I spoke with a good friend, Karl Katz, who is now in his eighties. He told me that he grew up with Manischewitz in Brooklyn. “The best product they have right now is Everything Matzah – it’s simply delicious. It sort of reminds you of an ‘everything bagel.’ The only problem with this matzah is that it quickly falls apart into crumbs. They have to do something about it.” 

Does Manischewitz have plans to do something about it? You could invite Karl to be your advisor.

“One trick we can offer to Karl is to lightly toast our matzo for that fresh-baked taste – we also warmly welcome Karl to come on a matzo tour and share his thoughts with us, too.

– Are you planning to do more hip, out-of-character events like the one in Chelsea Market?

” It is always our goal to move the Manischewitz brand forward – via new media or unique product offerings. It’s important that we preserve the brand’s iconic status while remaining relevant and top-of-mind with next-generation consumers.”

Could you please give some annual statistics in terms of consumers, including non-Jews, their ages?

“As of 2013, there are approximately six million Jews in the US, 70% of which participate in a Passover Seder. As America’s #1 kosher brand, Manischewitz is best known for Passover Matzah but has products that cater to a wider consumer base— broths, crackers, noodles, potato pancakes, matzah balls, and macaroons—Manischewitz means Matzah… and so much more. Moreover, at The Manischewitz Company, we are excited by the growth coming from our Season Brand Sardines, a brand we see as a great fit for health minded consumers, seeking new sources of protein and Omega 3s.”

Would you like to say anything else?

“No, I think the future for Manischewitz is great, and we are very excited that we have moved to this new stage in our business.”

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