Häagen-Dazs: A Jewish Story of Immigration, Entrepreneurship, and Ice Cream

255
Häagen-Dazs: A Jewish Story of Immigration, Entrepreneurship, and Ice Cream by Ilena Moses - Photo by Sonja Lippmann

When life gives you lemons—build an ultra-premium, kosher ice cream empire.
Before making millions with his dessert revolution, Reuben Mattus was a 10-year-old Polish Jewish immigrant squeezing lemons at his uncle’s Italian ice shop in Brooklyn. By the time he was in his teens, Reuben was traversing the city, selling ice cream bars and sandwiches from the back of a horse-drawn cart. Forty years later, he would achieve his dream of revolutionizing the ice cream world.

In 1936, Reuben married Rose Vesel, an English Jewish immigrant of Polish descent. Self-educated in both the scientific and culinary processes of ice cream making, he began experimenting with ice cream recipes. Reuben went on to spend 25 years working like a mad scientist in his own small kitchen until developing an ice cream formula that was entirely new, innovative, and, he believed, utterly delicious. Reuben’s new ice cream contained an unusually high proportion of buttermilk to make it extra creamy, a remarkably low air content for a dense consistency, all-natural ingredients, and a creative array of flavors. It was richer, creamier, and arguably more upscale than any on the market, with a distinctly high-end feel. By the early ’60s, Reuben was ready to introduce his creation to the world. All it needed was a name.

Reuben and Rose were shrewd marketers. They wanted their brand name to be at once foreign sounding (read: fancy), uniquely recognizable, and of personal significance. To honor the Danish for smuggling Jews out of German-occupied Europe during WWII, Reuben devised the totally nonsensical, but Nordic-sounding name Häagen-Dazs. He even added an umlaut to the already fabricated “Haagen” to give it a more foreign feel—even though umlauts have never been part of the Danish alphabet.

Reuben also prioritized the dietary needs of the Jewish community. “If I made good ice cream, I wanted my people to get it, so I made it kosher,” said Reuben in an interview with famed Jewish cookbook author and journalist Joan Nathan.

Häagen-Dazs started small, with Rose hand-delivering ice cream samples to deli owners across the city. It was an instant hit with the local Jewish community, but the Mattus’ dreamed of bringing Häagen-Dazs to the world stage and devised a unique marketing strategy to get there.

Rose recognized the emerging hippie culture of the early ’60s as an untapped market. To reach young people, she began delivering ice cream to college towns across the country via Greyhound bus.

“We found an alternate market, one steeped in the marijuana culture of the sixties,” she wrote years later. “Our early clients were a motley assortment of oddballs with long hair, fringe tastes, and decidedly eccentric business styles.”

Häagen-Dazs quickly gained popularity with these college students looking for a treat to satisfy “the munchies” while smoking marijuana.

Due to its popularity in a niche market, word spread about Häagen-Dazs without the Mattuses ever having to spend a penny on advertising. Thanks to those eccentric, long-haired “oddballs,” by the early ’70s, Häagen-Dazs was the single most profitable high-end ice cream brand in the nation.

The Mattuses sold their company to Pillsbury in 1983 to focus on family life and enjoy their unprecedented success. Staunch supporters of Israel, Reuben and Rose funded several cultural and educational projects in the nation, including a high technology institute for Israeli students. Reuben passed away in 1994 and Rose in 2006, shortly after her 90th birthday.

Now a part of the greater General Mills corporation, Häagen-Dazs is sold in over 50 nations and continues to be one of the most successful ice cream companies in the world. From Jewish delis to hippies’ dorm rooms, and eventually to supermarkets around the globe, Häagen-Dazs is easily the most famous Jewish business ever to use an umlaut in its name.

Research Sources:
Hevesi, Dennis. “Rose Mattus, 90, Co-Creator of Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream, Dies.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/12/01/obituaries/01mattus.html.
Miller, Stephen. “Rose Mattus, 90, Co-Founder of H.” The New York Sun, 1 Dec. 2006, www.nysun.com/obituaries/rose-mattus-90-co-founder-of-hagen-dazs/44436.
Carlson, Michael. “Obituary: Rose Mattus.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Jan. 2007, www.theguardian.com/media/2007/jan/09/advertising.food.
“Banking on Butterfat – The True Story Behind Häagen Dazs.” Tori Avey, 29 Aug. 2018, https://toriavey.com/history-kitchen/banking-on-butterfat-the-history-of-haagen-dazs/.
Nathan, Joan. “The Scoop on Ice Cream’s Jewish History, From Häagen-Dazs to Ben & Jerry’s.” Tablet Magazine, 2 Aug. 2012,
www.tabletmag.com/sections/food/articles/ice-creams-jewish-innovators.
Lyons, Richard D. “Reuben Mattus, 81, the Founder of Haagen-Dazs.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 1994,
www.nytimes.com/1994/01/29/obituaries/reuben-mattus-81-the-founder-of-haagen-dazs.html?searchResultPosition=1.
“The Story of Häagen-Dazs — American Ice Cream with a Danish Name.” Jewish Cooking in America, by Joan Nathan, A. Knopf, 1998, p. 330.
What do you think about this topic? We want to hear from you!
Join the conversation!
Ilena Moses is in the class of 2024 at Westridge School in Los Angeles, California. She is a staff writer and editor for Fresh Ink for Teens magazine. Ilena co-heads her school’s Jewish affinity group, manages her school newspaper, Spyglass, and volunteers as a tour guide and reenactor at Heritage Square, a local history museum. She loves peanut butter cups and binge-watching Israeli spy thrillers.
Accompanying photo: “Häagen-Dazs ” by Sonja Lippman