Klever Ochoa faced an uncertain future from behind the griddle in his lunch truck, which is parked each weekday outside the Manischewitz Company on Avenue K in Newark.
On a typical day, from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., he sells breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to some 40 of the people who work inside. But after Manischewitz — one of the best known and largest kosher food manufacturers in the United States — closes its doors in Newark permanently on Sept. 14, this small business owner is not sure what the future holds for Ochoa’s NJ Lunch Truck.
“Where will I go?” he asked. And like the 169 men and women on the Manischewitz production lines, he is not certain how he will recoup the loss of income.
The axe fell on the workers on July 17, 11 years after the company moved its processing plant in Jersey City to Newark.
Back on the sunny morning of June 14, 2011, as then-CEO Paul Bensabat took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the company’s moving its administrative offices to the Newark site from Secaucus, he said it was “a new step in the life of Manischewitz.”
Cory Booker, then the city’s mayor, said, “Newark is a city that welcomes people, and Manischewitz’s presence here is truly a celebration of these common values that unite us.” Now a United States senator (D-N.J.), Booker had proclaimed it “Manischewitz Day” in Newark. Demonstrating his prowess with “Jewish” language, he called the opening of the plant “bashert” — fated — as he wished for a “long and successful partnership” between his city and the iconic company.
But that shidduch could not withstand the trials of recent years. “At a challenging time in the retail and grocery business, we have made the difficult decision to close our plant in Newark,” said a Manischewitz spokesman in a July 6 announcement.
Two days later, the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, issued a statement saying he was “unhappy” with the move, but “pleased” that the company will continue to maintain its corporate headquarters in Newark, a presence that “will continue its commitment to our city.”
Baraka pledged to use funds from an anti-poverty program called Newark 2020 to provide jobs for workers laid off by Manischewitz.
The 129-year-old Manischewitz company name is time-honored for the high quality of its offerings and its stature in the world of Jewish cuisine; it calls itself “the nation’s largest manufacturer of processed kosher food products and the No. 1 baker of matzah in the entire world.”
In addition to that Passover staple, Manischewitz produces a plethora of other items, among them crackers, gefilte fish, pastas, soups, cakes and cookies, and kugel and latke mixes.
Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz began the family enterprise in 1888 as a small matzah bakery in Cincinnati. By 1932 it had grown and opened a second plant in Jersey City, eventually closing the Cincinnati plant. It remained under the family’s control until it was sold to a private firm, Kohlberg & Company, in 1990. In 1998, Richard A. Bernstein purchased the company; its name was changed to the R.A.B. Food Group in 2004.
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 the hedge fund Harbinger Capital sold Manischewitz to Sankaty Advisors, which still owns the company, now known as the Manischewitz Company. Sankaty is an arm of the Bain Capital investment group, the private equity firm founded by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which was often accused of starving its companies of capital, leading to thousands of workers being laid off.
But a corporate spokesperson, Scott Lessne, told NJJN that Manischewitz had faced “financial and operational challenges for quite some time,” even before Bain became its owner. Since the purchase by Bain, he said, its management has been “shoring up [Manischewitz’s] capital structure, expanding and improving the company’s product mix, improving packaging, and improving quality and safety.”
Lessne pledged that the company has begun an “aggressive” reemployment program for the blue-collar workers at the Newark facility who are being laid off.
None of the company’s executive team has been affected, according to Lessne.
Although no information was given regarding where Manischewitz manufacturing would be relocated, Lessne told NJJN its “high-quality, innovative products” will continue to be made at “more modern facilities.”