BROOKLYN, New York — I dreamt up the idea to make artisanal matzo way back in 1995, for Brett Kelly, my next door neighbor in my rent-stabilized, West Village apartment building. Her parents were closing their pizza shop on City Island and I was trying to convince her to take it over and turn it into the City Island Matzo Factory. She didn’t take the unleavened bait and the concept laid dormant in the back of my messy mind for over two decades.
Then in the Spring of 2015, my old summer camp chum, Kevin Rodriguez was looking to change careers and asked me for some business advice…after brainstorming some possibilities, my ol’ matzo idea bubbled its way to the surface!
Kevin went home and immediately started rolling out dough and filling cryptically-marked brown paper bags with various cracker formulations for me to sample and critique. Once we hit on the right recipe, we set about designing the packaging.
Because the idea had been macerating in my head for so long, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the brand and the box to feel like. I always knew it would have a grandma saying “Would it kill you to try something new?”, but then Kev and I studied all of the packages in the cracker aisle and realized that every single one had either a window or a picture of the actual cracker on the box.
I wasn’t willing to lose my grandma as the centerpiece or muck up the design with a random cracker picture stuck in the corner, so I came up with the idea to knock out our Gram’s glasses and make those the spot to peek at what we had to offer. It turned out to be a great decision; people tell us all of the time that they bought our stuff the first time for the package and the second time because it was actually delicious.
In April of 2016, we handmade our first official round of matzo chips for The James Beard House Seder and convinced four New York stores to do a trial run over Passover with as much matzo as we could manage to make for them, with the understanding that once they sold out, they sold out. We got a little bit of press and by launch day, there were people waiting to get into the stores before they opened and everything was sold out by 11am!
We knew we were onto something, so we moved from our little commissary kitchen to a bigger bakery in Coney Island. We were still hand-making it with rudimentary tools that we had cobbled together and an army of friends who were frantically churning the pasta makers and pricking the dough and hand toasting the not-toasty-enough ones, Oompa-loompa style.
It was a crazy time. (But also, super fun.)
That summer, we got a booth at The Fancy Food Show and instantly got a zillion orders! WAY more than our little Coney Island bakery and volunteer matzo makers could handle. So we told all of the stores to hold their horses and scaled up yet again!
By the time we launched in earnest on January 1st, 2017, we were making enough matzo to keep every cheese plate in America covered in crumbs. And now, a few years later, we’re in hundreds of gorgeous little specialty stores all over the world! Zingerman’s (a world-famous deli and gourmet shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan) replaced their cult favorite Matzo Ball Soup with ours! It was the first time they’d changed the recipe in 35 years!! And we’ve already been one of Oprah’s favorite things TWICE! Oprah!!
These days, Kevin mostly runs The Matzo Project show and I just mosey into the office every once in a while to stick my hands in a bag of crackers or weigh in on our next flavor…but I am SO proud of what we’ve built and it’s utterly thrilling to watch it grow. (And not just because I now have unlimited cracker access.)
Ashley Albert is the co-founder of The Matzo Project based in Brooklyn, New York.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World.