By: Seth Baker
On an early morning walk towards Manhattan’s Lower East Side, strolling past the upscale coffee shops along the Bowery, once the playground of delinquents that now has become quaint shops and glass hotel behemoths, I arrived at a seemingly forgotten New York, an area where her tarnished and humble remnants can still be admired. Landmarks of this area, Katz’s Deli and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, stand proudly as surviving pieces of the Lower East Side’s history, birthed from the multitudes of Jews, who, at the turn of the 20th century, were crammed into the numerous unsanitary tenements of the Lower East Side, one of which has now been transformed into an industry steeped in heritage.
While touring the 47,000 square foot Streit’s Matzo Factory located along four buildings on Rivington Street, amidst the ever constant cranking of rusty machinery and the sometimes-scorching heat emanating from its bowels, there never seems to be a sense of disorder or chaos. Perhaps this comes from the sense of care felt throughout these walls, a true notion of family that began when Aron Streit left Austria in the 1890’s and opened his first matzo bakery on Pitt street with just two ingredients, flour and water, making their matzo entirely by hand. In 1925, Aron and his sons opened what, at the time, was deemed a modern factory on Rivington, later purchasing three adjoining buildings to aid their growing business.
The irony stands that this once “modern” factory, has become the opposite, described now by Alan Adler, one of Aron’s grandsons, as “terribly inefficient,” yet it is this fact that makes their family business charming given their success. The Streit’s industry remains a family affair, with Aron’s grandchildren running his originally small business whose emphasis on quality is still appreciated despite the competition of cheaper Israeli imported matzos. Stepping out of the ancient, lumbering elevator, walking along the painted brick corridors into giant rooms filled with flour dusted cement floors, it seems to be something out of a Roald Dahl novel, a rustic wonderland of comically large mixing bowls, conveyor belts, and whimsical matzo filled baskets floating above your head.
From this inefficiency breeds character, an emphasis on traditional practices that remain the lifeblood of this family enterprise. From the burners, whose heat cause one side of their matzo to always be darker, to the hand mixing, to the Rabbis constantly on watch for any mistakes in the baking process, Streit’s demonstrates that, although not cost effective, quality requires that extra work. They are the only matzo supplier that packages their product the old way—matzo placed in a box by hand, then wrapped with clear film so as to makes the box air tight—while their competitors’ matzo, never touched by human hands, is put into a plastic bag then in box. It is this love and care in the production, the assertion by Adler that they “are as close to a hand bakery as a modern manufacturer is going to get now a days,” which leaves you with matzo just like the company itself, baked in tradition.