For generations, the name Manischewitz was practically synonymous with kosher foods and wine.
No Passover Seder seemed authentic without its square-shaped, ripple-faced matzo and a shot or more of the syrupy Concord grape wine that many find cloying yet nostalgic. And its slogan — “Man, oh Manischewitz” — was broadcast so ubiquitously throughout the years that it was even referred to on an episode of “Mad Men.”
“For me, putting Manischewitz on the Seder table is like using Yiddish slang in everyday conversation,” Samantha Corbin once wrote in an article for the web magazine Brokelyn. “It’s a celebration of cultural Judaism, a Judaism that can be observant but liberated from religious gravitas.”
But Manischewitz has undergone major shifts. It sold its wine division to what is now Constellation Brands in 1987. It has seen more and more of the kosher market go to its competitor Kayco — the manufacturer of Kedem wines and distributor of most other brands of kosher wine, as well as a bevy of foods. And standard American labels like Wise potato chips have had their foods certified by rabbis as kosher.
Then this week Kayco, formally known as the Kenover Marketing Corporation, announced that it had reached an understanding with the Manischewitz Company to acquire its panoply of products. Those include Manischewitz’s matzos, still the nation’s best-selling brand by far, as well as other foods, and beloved labels like Rokeach and Mother’s. The company’s portfolio will be trimmed down to its Season brand, known for sardines that are popular with nonkosher consumers.
Since by some estimates the two companies make up more than 50 percent of the kosher market, the announcement was seen in the kosher world as the equivalent of General Motors acquiring Ford. In theory, it could raise questions about whether Kayco was becoming a monopoly and what that might mean for kosher food prices, already considerably higher than those of nonkosher equivalents.
Menachem Lubinsky, who runs the annual Kosherfest trade show and publishes KosherToday.com, doubted that Kayco would raise prices excessively.
“It’s a family business and they are sensitive to the market,” Mr. Lubinsky said. “They’re very much under the microscope because people have been raising that very question.”
Both Kayco and Manischewitz declined to elaborate about the reasons for and the terms of the acquisition because the details were not final.
Mr. Lubinsky attributed the planned merger to Manischewitz’s decline as “the old-time Manischewitz customer has passed on.” He called the acquisition a “positive development” because “Kayco’s strong management team will no doubt help grow the brand as it has done with so many other brands.”
Robust growth in the American Jewish community, which numbers more than six million, is taking place among the ultra-Orthodox, which includes Hasidim, and the modern Orthodox. The former group in particular has become more rigorous in its demands for kosher products, preferring those certified by rabbis from its own tribes. Kayco has satisfied that demand.
Until recently, Manischewitz relied mostly on the Orthodox Union, the largest certification organization. It puts its OU seal on 800,000 products in 100 countries, including brands like Hershey chocolate bars, McCann’s Irish Oatmeal and Trader Joe’s tuna fish.
Menachem Genack, the chief executive of OU Kosher, said price increases were not a given. “There’s still competition out there,” he said. “In matzo you have Streit’s.”
History makes others skeptical. In 1991, Manischewitz was fined $1 million for fixing Passover matzo prices with Horowitz Margareten and Streit’s over a five-year period. A federal grand jury in Newark found that at a meeting at Ratner’s kosher dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side, Manischewitz’s general sales manager had asked counterparts at Horowitz Margareten to duplicate Manischewitz’s proposed price increases for the coming Passover. Horowitz Margareten agreed, and, later, Streit’s did, too.
Manischewitz was founded in 1888 in Cincinnati by Rabbi Dov Ber Manischewitz, who arrived in the United States from Prussia as part of the first wave of Eastern European immigrants seeking to escape pogroms and ingrained poverty. His company was the first to make matzos on roller-coaster-like assembly lines, and they became a Passover standard.
By the 1930s Manischewitz had opened a plant in Jersey City. But in 1990 the company was taken private by Kohlberg & Company, the leveraged buyout firm, for $42.5 million. Other takeovers by hedge funds and private investment firms followed. Today the firm is called the Manischewitz Company. It no longer makes many foods — even its iconic matzos are now made in Israel — but distributes Manischewitz-branded products and an assortment of other brands. Those include Horowitz Margareten and Goodman’s matzos; Rokeach, known for its borscht; Mother’s, known for its bottled gefilte fish; Mrs. Adler’s; and Carmel.
Kayco’s roots are in Slovakia, where the Herzog family had produced wine since the middle of the 19th century, even supplying Emperor Franz Joseph, monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eugene Herzog survived the Holocaust in hiding and in 1948 reached the United States, where he went to work for a struggling wine company as a truck driver and salesman. By 1958 he was the majority stockholder and soon established the Kedem wine brand. His youngest son, David, and grandson, Mordy, now run the company from Bayonne, N.J.
As Kedem moved into foods, it reached distribution and importing agreements with 150 brands including Yehuda matzos, Empire soups and U-bet syrups. It wholly owns Gefen canned, frozen and packaged foods. Its sturdy profit engine is its Kedem wines division, which makes a sweet kosher wine and the popular grape juice. It also distributes dozens of other imported fine wines from vineyards around the world that can also be used for Sabbath and holiday rituals.
In 2017, Manischewitz tried to challenge Kedem’s dominance in grape juice by joining forces with the American behemoth Welch’s, arranging extra-scrupulous kosher certification and offering steep discounts. But the Kedem habit proved hard to break.
Manischewitz’s loss of market share has benefited some people. Masbia, which runs three soup kitchens and food pantries in Brooklyn and Queens, recently received a trailer-load of donations of potato chips and other products. With Wise potato chips bearing an OU seal, Manischewitz had been unable to sell its chips during the Passover season.