A man breaks sheets of matzo by hand then arranges them on racks in piles thirteen high. He is a master of balance, evenly distributing the warm, crisp matzo so it doesn’t rock the wire basket as it weaves through the factory to cool. He keeps a clean workstation, continuously brushing crumbs into a waste receptacle at the end of his table. His movements are measured and therapeutic.
With New York City’s exuberant real estate prices and a neighborhood as hip as the Lower East Side, it’s hard to believe this snapshot of old-fashioned production is nestled right in its center, let alone taking up an entire block. Streit’s Matzo Factory, founded in 1916, has come a long way from its humble beginnings, even though it has only moved a couple blocks since.
When you first walk into the factory on Rivington Street, you’ll notice a few things: The toasted white ceilings, the old-fashioned punch cards, the bulletin board filled with pictures of Kyei Williams, a Streit’s employee, hugging various coworkers (“Congratulations! You’re retired now!”). Even the freight elevator that carries people and products between floors seems from another time, though its inspection certificate was last signed in January.
“It’s a terribly inefficient factory,” says Alan Adler, co-owner of Streit’s and great-grandson of its founder, Aron Streit, but he later goes on to say, “There’s a history to it, so we put up with the inefficiencies.”
Matzo is unleavened bread traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, celebrating the story of Exodus, where the Israelites were freed from slavery in ancient Egypt.
Each day at the factory starts with a flour delivery truck, the only trace of which remains is a small mound of white powder that is stark against New York City’s concrete. On a normal day, the flour will be funneled to the basement before making its way to various floors to be turned into matzo.
For Passover, the process gets slightly more complex: the flour will be mixed with “still” water (which has been in holding tanks at least overnight) and baked in a convection oven for 18 minutes. All of this must be done with a Rabbi present. With the holiday rapidly approaching, the factory is going into overdrive to produce the Passover kosher matzo: They estimate 2,000 pounds of matzo an hour.
There is a homemade feel to every piece of Streit’s matzo because each is handled so intimately. Adler refers to the factory as an “artisan bakery”, where no two pieces of matzo look alike and the “Clinton Street side” is always a little darker. The company itself remains in the family and only has about eighty employees, most of whom are not Jewish. They have also just completed a five-year plan to stay in the Lower East Side, regardless of rumors that they would be moving to New Jersey.
“We try to be a good neighbor,” Adler says. With the intoxicating, delicious smell of baked matzo flooding the block, few can complain.