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Manischewitz looks beyond seder table to broaden appeal

When Mark Weinstein's family sits down for the Passover seder dinner on Monday evening, a new tradition will be introduced.

"I'll be pushing more Manischewitz products at the seder table than we typically consume," the newly minted CEO of Manischewitz Co. said laughing.

Mr. Weinstein was hired late last week as an affiliate of private equity firm Bain Capital, as it prepared to acquire the 126-year-old brand known primarily for its matzo and for lending its name to the famous (some might say infamous) square bottles of sweet kosher wine. The deal with Sankaty Advisors was announced Wednesday. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Manischewitz's new owner is facing a marketing challenge: to broaden the appeal of its products without losing the loyalty that the brand has built for more than a century.

It's a balancing act that Manischewitz began a few years ago. It has introduced new products, such as pistachio-orange flavoured macaroons, to appeal to broader tastes.

The company has had success moving its sardines out of the kosher aisle at grocery stores and in front of more shoppers.

Some of its advertising makes little reference to Judaism or religious laws.

Mr. Weinstein believes the company's chicken soup and additional macaroon flavours could also sell more widely than its traditional Jewish consumer base.

At the same time, it has an entrenched relationship with Jewish consumers who grew up with the brand name. The power of nostalgia is huge: they've eaten matzo with their parents and grandparents, and even those who appreciate good wine have developed a taste for the sugary Concord Grape version made by Constellation Brands under the Manischewitz name. Call it a willing suspension of highfalutin taste.

"I've seen other brands, they try to completely reposition themselves and they have not been successful, because they alienate the core customer," Mr. Weinstein said.

"The strategy going forward is not to recreate the brand; it's to take the brand and build upon it," he added.

While everyone now associates the name with wine, Manischewitz started with matzo. In 1888, Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz opened a bakery in Cincinnati, Ohio, churning out the bland unleavened bread from stoves powered by coal. Soon enough, he was selling matzo as far away as Japan, New Zealand and Egypt.

It was not until 1940, more than half a century after it was founded, that the company began making anything other than matzo. That is when it introduced Tam Tam crackers, which would become a fixture next to the juice cups at Hebrew schools across North America.

It then branched into other products – packaged soups, beets, cookies and that ground fish patty with enigmatic appeal, the gefilte fish. In recent years, its new, gluten-free matzos have sold well.

Manischewitz owns a number of brands including Rokeach, Mrs. Adler's, Carmel, Season and its natural and organic food line, Guiltless Gourmet.

A large portion of Manischewitz's annual sales still take place just before Passover, when it jockeys with competing brands such as Kedem and Streits for room on the seder table.

Kosher food products are a $200-billion-a-year industry in North America, with almost 15 million people who buy kosher regularly. Sales are growing steadily, at roughly 15 per cent a year, according to a 2012 report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

But kosher products have come to appeal to consumers beyond the Jewish community, including vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant, for whom the pareve designation is a quick way to check that a product contains neither dairy nor animal products. It has also shown a growing appeal among consumers looking for natural, healthy foods, some of whom see a kosher stamp as a sign that the product is more conscientiously made.

According to 2009 survey from market research firm Mintel, just under one-quarter of people who buy kosher food reported doing so because they keep kosher or follow other religious rules about food consumption. The vast majority said they buy kosher for food quality, food safety or "general healthfulness." Mintel does not have updated data on the topic, however, because it is such a niche industry.

"If there are general positive associations that are developing … we might start seeing it used as a marketing claim in the same way that 'organic' has become a marketing claim," said Aner Tal, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. The Lab does not research the kosher-food industry and has not established that those associations exist. However, its research has shown that labels matter: For example, just calling a product "organic" can lead to consumers believing it is healthier, and even that it tastes better.

"When you look at what [kosher] means, it means making products at very high standards, high levels of supervision, and natural products," Mr. Weinstein said. "There is an appeal to that."