More than a century ago, Manhattan's crowded Lower East Side was home to the largest Jewish community on Earth, teeming with garment shops, kosher butchers, delis, pickle pushcarts and other traditional Jewish vendors. Today, the neighborhood is better known for upscale restaurants, hotels, boutiques and bars, but evidence of its Jewish heritage can still be found among the various other ethnicities that have set up shop in the district.
One example is Streit's, the nation's only family-owned and -operated maker of matzo, the unleavened bread eaten during the eight-night Jewish holiday of Passover. Founded by Austrian baker Aron Streit in 1925, Streit's continues to bake millions of pounds of matzo annually (and produce a number of other matzo-related foodstuffs) at its factory, a conglomeration of four tenement buildings at the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Streets.
Today, Streit's maintains a loyal following among locals, nostalgic old-timers, Jews making the pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood and, of course, matzo lovers from around the world. It's that connection to the neighborhood that has kept Streit's firmly rooted for 86 years. "This is where our great-grandfather, our grandfathers, our fathers worked, so it's got a history to it," says Alan Adler, director of operations at Streit's and great-grandson of the company's founder. "At Passover time, we get a lot of customers who still come back to the Lower East Side to buy their products at our retail store. People are interested in the history of the business, so that's sort of the draw to stay here."
A visit to Streit's is an informative—and tasty—experience. Start by perusing the selection at the street-level grocer: there's basic matzo, matzo meal and matzo ball soup mixes, as well as an assortment of newer products, such as flavored matzos (including a Mediterranean matzo with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and olive oil), kosher-for-Passover cakes (made with matzo meal instead of flour) and gluten-free cake mixes (available in chocolate and vanilla). Next, peer through the windows to see the matzo-making process, which hasn't changed since the 1930s. "Conveyor belts take [the matzo] from the end of the oven and move it upstairs to the packing line," explains Adler. "That takes about 18 minutes, which also enables the matzo to cool to a temperature that's acceptable for packing. The men at the end of the oven that you can see from the sidewalk break it into sheets." Rabbis are stationed throughout the factory to certify that the matzo is baked in accordance with the Jewish laws of kashrut, which dictate that it take no longer than 18 minutes—starting from the time the flour and water have been blended—for matzo to be baked for Passover, to ensure a decisively unleavened final product. The factory offers free public tours all year round; call 212-475-7000 to schedule one.
Don't be shy during your visit to Streit's; Adler and his cousins encourage visitors to ask questions. All are happy to dole out their insider knowledge of the ins and outs of matzo production, along with free hot samples of their product, fresh from the oven.
Streit's is open to the public from 9am to 4:30pm, Monday through Thursday (and Sundays before Passover); it will be closed for the holiday from April 18 to 25.