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Magazine

HUSTLE | How Two Camp Buddies Made a Jewish Staple “Kosher” for All

HUSTLE | How Two Camp Buddies Made a Jewish Staple “Kosher” for All

Kevin Rodriguez (left) and Ashley Albert (right), founders of The Matzo Project

All photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are property of The Matzo Project

Matzo is so much more than the sum of its humble ingredients. Its unleavened nature commemorates the hurried exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (so hurried the bread dough did not have time to rise), a symbol of redemption and freedom, humility and remembrance of servitude. Deuteronomy 16:3 refers to it as “the bread of affliction.” 

Classic matzo for Passover is made of flour and water, and not just any old flour. Commercial matzo is made only from flour grown, harvested, and processed according to Jewish law. For those not keeping kosher,  olive oil, salt, other spices might find their way into the mix. Sometimes flavored matzo — wine, fruit juice, onions, and garlic might be additions — and even recipes including eggs make their appearance when Passover isn’t being observed. 

Still, even when flavored, the history heavy connotations and simple ingredients hardly seem a likely recipe for #goodeats. 

And yet what started as a culinary-sociocultural experiment in Brooklyn has now blossomed into a delicious, surprisingly witty and wildly successful national business dubbed The Matzo Project. The company churns out crisp and yummy matzos, in boxes featuring a send-up of the Jewish grandmother stereotype (bright red lipstick, wavy silver quaff, massive shades) saying all of the things a good Borscht Belt bubbe (or Miriam Mazel’s mother) might exclaim: “Eat something, you look skinny!” “Would it kill you to try something new?”.

The project was born, improbably, 30+ years ago at a private Jewish summer camp for kids in North Carolina, one Blue Star Camp. There, Miami natives Kevin Rodriguez and Ashley Albert met, and became pals. Many years later, they reconnected in New York City. Over a casual conversation about change (of which Albert was apparently an expert, having held such heterogeneous posts as shuffleboard champ and voiceover artist), she floated her secret ambition to revamp the flavorless, but essential, matzo. 

“I actually dreamt up the idea 20 years ago for a friend whose parents were closing their pizza parlor,” Albert confesses. “I floated it as a suggestion for what they could do with their pizza oven. But they didn’t go for it, and I filed the idea away into the dark recesses of my brain.”

Then she unearthed it, and presented it to Rodriguez. 

“We both had a hard time believing that no one else had done it, but here we are,” she says.

Rodriguez, who had a career in product development, embraced the notion. He went out and bought flour, she went out and grabbed a sketch pad. Rodriguez did the recipe development, Albert did the branding. They both did the noshing.

Something clicked. Consumers responded to their trial batches, and they quickly upgraded from a small commissary kitchen, into a larger Kosher bakery in Brooklyn. While Rodriguez and Albert’s matzo is not certified for Passover, it is kosher for ordinary use.

“The day we launched, people were waiting outside the few local stores that we were sold in, and we were sold out by 11 am,” Albert recalls. “It has been such a rewarding and surprising few years. We had no idea there was such a secret network of rabid year-round matzo lovers!”

They had to scale up four times in the first year, Albert says.

The Matzo Project has been embraced by people of every religious persuasion. 

And it’s not just the masses who are meshuggeneh for Matzo: the James Beard House, Balaboosta Soho, and the Conan O’Brien Green Room order the Matzo by the crate. Currently available in Everything, Salted, and as Chips in Everything, Salted, Harissa, and Cinnamon Sugared flavors, Rodriguez and Albert are also branching out and offering a Matzo Ball Mix and Soup Kit, as well as Chocolate Ungapotchkies (milk chocolate and peanut, dark chocolate and coconut). The Matzo Project products are available online and across the country at specialty stores including our Catskills Outpost in Mountaindale, NY.

Which is great. Because for many of the matzo-ignorant, the Matzo Project has become a lifestyle. It’s vegan, nut-free, sans artificial anything. It works as a snack, with cheese, as a more waist-friendly bagel replacement with lox & schmear, as a dessert course...We even offered samples at Beekman 1802’s Harvest Fest in Sharon Springs this September and subsequently sold out of all of the Matzo chips we brought with us!

Matzo Chips for sale at our Catskills Outpost in Mountaindale, NY. Photo: New York Makers

And just in case you need inspiration, check out this Cooking Channel TV collection of recipes of delightful things you can do with matzo — bruschetta, lemon sponge cake with glazed strawberries, cobbler, chocolate walnut torte, creamy matzo-apple kugel, to name a few!

“We have a few fun flavors coming down the pipeline,” Albert says. So stay tuned, matzo lovers. If you could pick another flavor for the Matzo Project to add, what would it be?