Purple Reign: The Story of Manischewitz

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S1: This episode is coming out at the tail end of Hanukkah, so we thought we’d take a look at what is perhaps America’s most iconically Jewish brand, Manischewitz, take it from star of stage and screen Mayim Bialik. Pretty much every holiday memory I have regarding food relates to Manischewitz. Of course, she was paid to say that she’s a Manesh of its spokesperson, speaking in a video produced by the company. But I feel the same way when I think about Jewish holidays. I think about the oil burning for eight days and the plagues descending on the Egyptians and all that. But I also think about Manisha Fatmata and her matzo ball soup mix. Mmm. So good.

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S2: And I think about Manischewitz of its wine, if you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of absurdly, grotesquely sweet.

S3: It is not good wine. Some people find it undrinkable. And yet for many, even those same people who find it undrinkable, a Jewish holiday just isn’t complete without a bottle of Manischewitz. In fact, the first time I got drunk, it was when I was about 14 years old. I was at a Passover Seder. Somehow no one was paying attention to me. I was seated next to the bottle of Manischewitz and I overindulged. This was my introduction to inebriation and also to hangovers. I do not recommend getting hung over on Manischewitz. You vomit purple thought you should know that. Anyway, for this special holiday episode, we thought we’d look at the business behind Manish Ebbetts. How did an immigrant rabbi use modern technology to dominate the millennia old market for? And how did a wine manage become the taste of Judaism when it tastes so gross?

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S4: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Today on the show Purple Rain, that’s spelled Hourigan. You got it, Purple Rain, the story of Maneesha, that’s.

S5: In 1888, Rabbi Doberman’s shavitz left Russia for Cincinnati when he got there, he started baking matzo for the city’s Jewish community.

S2: Marta is a kind of unleavened crunchy cracker that’s important in some Jewish observances. If you’ve ever been to a Passover Seder, you’ve probably Monzer anyway. Rabbi Menasche Shavitz was making his matzo by hand, but he couldn’t make it fast enough to meet demand. So he figured out a way to make matzo with a machine.

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S6: I actually have the patent upstairs.

S1: Sharni Seidman is the chief marketing officer for the Manischewitz company.

S6: I have a lot of archival stuff from the Manischewitz company. So the original patent of the original Moth’s a Bakery. I like hand drawings of the equipment and I’ve signed patent for the first machine Matza and Ever and the United States. But they invented producing Motss to scale before. That is only handmade.

S1: When they started manufacturing Mozza like that, was it considered radical to mass produce Mozza?

S6: Oh, yes. And radical because it’s not just innovation. This is religious. It’s ritual.

S3: Rabbi Manesh Ebbetts had to contend with Jewish authorities who didn’t like his modern methods, but he eventually managed to convince the Jewish world that as long as Jews were operating the machines and as long as they followed kosher guidelines, like they could only take 18 minutes to make the matter, the matter that the machines produced was kosher.

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S6: He actually wanted to service the community, not just the community in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he first started the company to service other Jews in other areas of the country that need matzoh for Passover. So the intent behind this was the scale it for the needs of the community and to do it to the utmost kosher standards.

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S3: Rabbi Manesh Evertz died in 1914. His sons took over the operation in 1923. They took the company public in 1932. They opened a second factory in New Jersey and relocated corporate headquarters there. They continued to build the business, reaching beyond the most traditional observant Jewish enclaves and expanding along with America’s growing Jewish population.

S6: And if you see the evolution of the matzo box, you begin to see the marketing strategies of the companies started off and all in Yiddish and their marketing material, all in Yiddish because they were servicing a local community that was speaking that language. Then as the community grew and they wanted to expand, it was half Yiddish, half English, and it became only in English.

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S3: In 1940, the manager of its company began to move beyond Mozza, doing brand extensions that eventually included soup, gefilte fish and other kosher foods, 70 products in all. But by far, the most successful brand extension wasn’t for food, it was for wine.

S1: Kosher wine has all sorts of requirements that make it kosher from how it’s handled to who’s handling it and whether or not Jews drink wine at regular meals, wine is a part of various important ceremonies and rituals. So if you’re observant, you need some on hand. Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century largely made kosher wine in small batches from the Concord grapes that grow in the northeastern United States. The grapes were sour, so vintners added lots of sugar to them, which made these wines very sweet. When prohibition began in 1920, kosher wine makers had to get special dispensation from the government to provide wine for religious services. But when prohibition ended in 1933, the market opened up and there were suddenly space for a mass produced kosher wine brand. One of the people who’d been making small batch kosher wine spotted a big opportunity.

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S7: It goes back to this man, Meyer Robinson, who is really the key figure in the modern wine company and the great brilliance of Robertson. It really was as a marketer. That’s what it was about.

S1: Roger Horowitz is the author of the book Kosher USA. He says Meyer Robinson, who had been making small amounts of wine under the brand name Monarch, realized there’d be lots of competition for the expanding kosher wine market after prohibition and that the winner would be the wine that could stand out and differentiate itself.

S7: So how do you get a visibility? The marketplace, you get a brand that people can recognize. And what brand was out there? Manischewitz. The Manischewitz food company was something that was very well established going back to the 90s. And so Robinson realized that if he could have his wine name for Manischewitz, his wine would benefit by the Manischewitz brand. Apparently, they knew the Manischewitz family. So they go and negotiate a license agreement, a 99 year license agreement, which still in effect for the folks who make Manischewitz today.

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S1: It was a successful partnership from the start. But Robinson soon saw that his revenue numbers would be bounded by the nature of his products and its target customers.

S7: It’s not sold on its flavor, on its quality. It’s sold on its tradition, which limits you to connecting it to tradition for people to purchase it. So it’s doing very well in the Jewish community, but the market ultimately is quite limited.

S1: Menasche of its cruised along like this for a while, serving its core constituency. But in the 1950s, some interesting sales data started to come in when Myer Robinson looked into where Manesh of its wine was selling best and who was buying it. The answer she, he found, were unexpected.

S7: So by the late 50s, the estimates are that 80 percent of Manischewitz consumers are not use, which is to say is overwhelmingly an African-American wine.

S3: At first glance, it’s a curious development. How did a kosher wine made for observant Jews turn into a product that appealed to and was eventually targeted to African-Americans?

S8: Yeah, I’m Adrian Miller, the soul food scholar who’s dropping knowledge like hot biscuits.

S9: When I was researching my book on the history of soul food, one of the most gratifying aspects of my research was just looking through historical sources, especially old newspapers and magazines.

S8: And lo and behold, in Ebony magazine, which was the high class magazine for Black America in the 50s, 60s, 70s, there’s ads for Manischewitz and and these ads are notable African-Americans, mainly jazz people. So Billy Eckstine is the one that comes to mind. But I always like looking at these ads on my watch. So these black entertainers were kitsch people for these kosher products.

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S3: The ads were not about religious observance or the careful protocols that go into making a wine qualify as kosher. They were about projecting an image.

S8: You want to be cool like me, Billy Eckstine, drink Manischewitz if you want to set the party off. Right, drink Manischewitz.

S1: Adrienn hadn’t known about this connection before, but he says that once he considered it, the appeal of Martha to African-American buyers wasn’t all that far fetched. For one, his book makes clear that there was a long standing connection between soul food and kosher food. In part, that’s because many Jewish families in the South hired African-American cooks who then became familiar with Jewish cuisine. And in part, it’s because African-Americans were accustomed to buying kosher products.

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S9: You see study after study showing that African-Americans would often think of kosher butchers as selling better meat because when they would go to these other racist white butchers, they would give them tainted me old meat, that kind of stuff. So they knew that if it was kosher, it was good.

S1: The sacred nature of Manischewitz, the fact that it was blessed by a religious authority, even if it was a different religion, also seemed to help.

S9: The thing that was really interesting to me, and this is a personal memory of mine, is that we would drink kosher wine around Easter time. As I started to do more research into African-American food traditions, I found that in the South, these kosher wines like David and. Shavitz are often called praise wine, and so there’s a significant kind of religious culture. Another part of Manischewitz appeal was its sugary taste, which was comfortingly familiar, and part of that is a reflection of African-American home winemaking traditions in the rural South. A lot of people made their own wine, and so it tended to be on the sweet side.

S1: So I think that’s just a continuation of that tradition, whatever it was that created this sales trend. Sharni Seidman, the current manager of at KMO, says the brand hopped on and rode it as far as it would go.

S6: When Manischewitz recognized that the black community was buying their product. They went for it and they put a lot of marketing dollars and support behind that high.

S10: Here’s one of my new favorite.

S2: I’ve met that gentleman that I met, a man who shared its wine among the remnants of this era of that aforementioned print ad featuring Billy Eckstine and another featuring the doo wop group The Ink Spots with the caption Menasche of It’s Kosher Wine harmonizes with us sweetly. Sammy Davis Jr., himself a converted Jew, and onepoint became a brand spokesman doing this TV ad for a minute of its beverage called Amanita Mensheviks Wine.

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S10: Try some after dinner tonight. It’s delicious.

S4: There was also this 1954 tune from the group, the Cruise titled Mambo Shavitz, that wasn’t commissioned by Manesh others, but might as well have been an omen that music maybe that be like a glass of wine and so-called sweet gets my balls, the son and then my feet on the mambo.

S2: Man A.M. man the brand also came out with a slogan, Man, oh, man, . That became a popular catchphrase. The upshot of all this was that, according to Roger Horowitz, in the middle of the 20th century, many of it’s achieved a remarkable level of notoriety.

S7: There was a consumer research survey done in the late 50s which discovered 70 percent of Americans had seen a man, a television advertisement. One third had seen a advertisement in a newspaper. That’s enormous recognition. At its peak, the company is making 13 million gallons of wine per year from its facilities. So it’s a big time operation, large advertising budget, large consumer recognition noticeable outside of various kinds of Jewish circles. So it had visibility, which really persisted. Seven.

S5: You from Iraq by 1972, the name Menasche Shavitz was so well known, it was used as a sort of replacement for swearing on the moon. Here’s astronaut Gene Cernan in the midst of a moonwalk during the Apollo 17 mission, exclaiming as he throws something through the moon’s low gravity atmosphere.

S11: And it’s clear that go to the you mark.

S1: This astounding level of brand awareness made of its wonder if it could move beyond its Jewish and African-American customers and goose sales in other demographics, they thought, OK, let’s see if we can breakthrough with a white Christian audience.

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S7: And so they have these advertisements on Saturday Evening Post with people drinking Manischewitz who are so clearly not choose. It’s very humorous, the hairstyles and the styles and all that. And it’s a complete failure.

S3: Mensheviks was bumping up against the limits of its appeal and bigger threats were yet to come.

S7: My father comes home one day with French wine. French wine that’s kosher.

S3: More on that when we come back.

S12: That’s especially sweet and the product of Manischewitz, wine company, New York.

S1: As many of its wine rose to great heights in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a rival company was plotting a counterattack. Kadem wine was similar to Manesh efforts made from the same sour Concord grapes and sweetened with grape juice to make it palatable. It was always in Manesh of its shadow, but the immigrant Jewish family behind Kadem, the Herzog’s, had a revolutionary notion to make kosher wine that tasted like wine. Roger Horwood says the Herzog’s viewed this as a crucial strategic move.

S7: We can’t beat up Mensheviks on the sweet kosher wine. They’ve got that market. They’ve got that brand embedded. Let’s make our brand something different. So they came up the advertising slogan Kosher means special, not sweet. So early 1980s, they really aggressively market essentially dinner wines that are kosher.

S1: The herczog started sourcing grapes from growers in Napa Valley, California, and they began to make drier sutler kosher wines. Others used grapes from France to achieve the same effect. It was the early 80s and wine culture was burgeoning in America.

S2: Knowing something about wine drinking, decent wine with dinner was no longer just for Europeans and Jews and African-Americans were not excluded from this trend. They were interested in dreya high quality wines, too. And suddenly that treacly Menasche of its taste seemed wildly out of step with the times.

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S7: It’s not the case at that Manischewitz wine, you know, collapses, it’s just that its moment as a sort of dynamic growth wine has really ended by the early 1980s and the shift to dry wine is what Hem’s it in. It means there’s no place to go. And the company at this point is so connected to sweet wines, they can’t diversify the brand, if you will. That was such an advantage for, say, we’re talking 30, 40 years has become an albatross around their neck. They can’t become something different.

S2: Seeing the writing on the wall, Maya Robinson and the Monarch Wine Company sold their Menasche of its operation in 1987 to what is now Constellation Brands, a massive beer and liquor company that imports products like Corona and Modelo. Just a few years later, in 1990, the Manesh of its family sold the food side of the business to a private equity firm for about 43 million dollars. After that, it bounced from one corporate owner to another, at one point getting sold to a division of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by Mitt Romney. But last year, the Munish of its company was sold to the Herczog family. The Herzog’s holding company Kako still makes, among many other kosher products, Kadem Wine. So one time rivals have become corporate siblings. In a way, I thought it was returning home because now the manager of US products are back under the umbrella of an Orthodox Jewish family, which is had just think was in some ways better than having it under the control of Bain Capital, who you had to admit was not particularly concerned about kosher rules or anything like that. They were interested in the brand.

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S1: According to Shani Seidman, the chief marketing officer, many of Keiko’s kosher products are familiar to very observant Jews living in heavily Jewish enclaves. But man, Manischewitz is the one brand with wide recognition, even among less observant Jews and in less Jewish parts of the country.

S6: When you go to a kosher section in Nevada or in Northern California, it’ll be mainly Manischewitz products. And that’s where the distribution is bigger and broader. When you go outside these major cities, when someone wants to mention a Jewish food or Jewish food brand, you’re going to mention the Manischewitz brand has like around 80 percent brand recognition in the U.S. Menasche of its continues to be the number one kosher wine brand in America, which is sort of baffling given that you can get kosher wines now that don’t taste like alcohol infused grape juice.

S1: But with Menasha, that’s as Roger Horowitz says, it’s not really about the terroir in the vintage in the book.

S7: If you buy Manischewitz, you’re deliberately making a decision to taste the past in the way kosher wine used to be.

S3: For a not really observant, not at all kosher Jew like me when I celebrate a Jewish holiday, I don’t want to drink something that tastes like regular wine, like a wine I might drink any other day of the year. I want me to Shavitz, because for me, it tastes like Judaism. It tastes like dozens of Passover is over many years with friends and family every time I sip it. Those memories come rushing back. It’s the ultimate nostalgia product, which is sort of amazing for a brand that has its roots in Mashi made matzah a product so revolutionary that back in its day, many Jews were uncomfortable with it. Maidservants has a fraction of the sales it did during its mid century peak, but it’s still chugging along its sales peak at Passover and Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays. So here’s a toast to you. Listener with a cup of sweet, sweet. Oh, so sweet Manesh Evertz.

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S2: Aha, so memorable, happy Hanukkah. We’ll leave you with some holiday tidings from the soul food scholar Adrian Miller.

S8: I just love me some gefilte fish. I know that’s jacked up thing to say. It is bizarre. But, man, I just I don’t know. I just dig it.

S2: That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller with help from Cleo Levin Technical Direction from Merritt Jacob Gabriel Roth as Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. This is the last episode of this season. We’ll be back early next year with more thrilling tales of modern capitalism. Happy holidays and thanks for listening.