On Sept. 28, six children from the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, ranging in age from nine to 11, crowded around Mayor Ras Baraka as he chatted with them and autographed their boxes of Manischewitz Thin Tea Matzos.
They had just taken part in the inaugural “Manischewitz Experience” factory tour, launched by the iconic kosher company’s president, David Sugarman. Also participating in a ceremonial ribbon cutting and exploration of the facility were Newark Public Schools superintendent Christopher Cerf and students from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.
While Jews around the world were thinking about apples and honey with a side of forgiveness, the Manischewitz factory, which claims to be the largest matza-manufacturing plant in the world, was gearing up for Passover production — and many more visitors.
Tours will be available by appointment to schools and other groups. Participants — even the mayor — were required to wear hairnets and lab-style jackets as they headed onto the factory floor, and all visitors were reminded to keep their fingers away from the machinery.
Michael Schrob, Manischewitz’s director of planning and logistics, led the Boys and Girls Club members on their tour through the 180,000 square feet devoted to producing kosher food — much of it for Passover. The young visitors watched as flour was mixed with water in giant vats to begin the matza-making process, which, according to Jewish law, must take no more than 18 minutes.
The dough was poured onto a “sheeter,” where it would be flattened and sent through a series of machines that add layers (for flakiness, according to Schrob), cut it into ribbons and then squares, and punch holes in it to allow air to escape and keep the dough from rising as it bakes.
The visitors watched as the matza, now fully formed and recognizable, if raw, continued on a three-minute journey through a long oven before it emerged into the next room, baked and crisp, still hot, and ready for wrapping and packaging. At various points throughout the process, kosher supervisors checked the matza and removed any pieces that did not pass inspection. Near the end of the line, Schrob grabbed a few pieces to share.
Although the company declined to provide statistics, a 2014 video on its own website boasts that 22,600 kilograms of flour are delivered to the plant every day, and that Manischewitz produces 37 million pounds of matza every year.
The children peered into every machine, peppered Schrob with questions and comments, and let loose with giggles, shrieks, oohs, and ahhs that pierced the deafening thump and whir of the machinery — although their excitement for the mayor may have slightly edged out their interest in the matza.
After the tour, club member Jah’asia Speed said, “I learned how to make the crackers. All they do is use flour and water, and they put it in a couple hundred degrees thing. And then when it stops they put it in these little packages.”
Nevaeh Gatsby was intrigued with the packaging process — “how it first looks in the box and how it is outside the box.”
The Kushner high school seniors, who were more subdued during their earlier tour were no less impressed. “I had no idea how matza was made at all,” said Olivia Strulowitz, a senior from Highland Park. Next Passover, she said — perhaps exaggerating just a little — “Every bite I take I’m going to remember this trip.”
The B. Manischewitz Company, LLC, began as a small matza bakery in Cincinnati in 1888. By 1932 it had grown and opened a second plant in Jersey City, eventually closing the Cincinnati plant. In 2007 Manischewitz, which by then had gone through a few different owners, moved its headquarters to Newark, and in 2011 moved again within the city to its current location. In 2014 it was purchased by Sankaty Advisors, an arm of the Bain Capital investment group, which still owns the company, now known as the Manischewitz Company.
The tours involving Newark youngsters and school groups offer a way for the company to give back to the community, but they will also provide a means for Manischewitz to interact directly with its consumers. Sugarman, speaking with NJJN before the ceremony, said, “We’re going to have a Q&A I’ll be hosting for lot of groups coming through. We want to know what’s relevant for them.”
Baraka used the occasion to tout the diversity of Newark and the opportunity for cultural exchange that the tours offer. The decision to open the plant to the community “takes us a long, long way, particularly at a time in our country when there is less tolerance and less understanding between many people around this country,” he said.
For Cerf, taking students on the tours offers both hope and a lesson in business. “I want every young person in Newark to see, first of all, that they live in a vibrant, exciting, growing city that has all sorts of pockets of greatness in it,” he said. “And second, to watch how a business works — you get raw materials, go through a process, out comes a product of the highest possible quality, sold for more than it costs to make — that is something, that’s what makes the world go round.” Addressing the visiting youngsters, he said, “I want you guys to see that and experience it.”
After tasting some freshly made matza, Baraka pronounced it “good” and then suggested, “Put some tuna fish on it,” and smiled, before he continued signing autographs.