Local Chabad launches first non-northeast shmurah matzo bakery
This year is the first full year of operations for the shmurah matzo bakery located at Chabad in Fort Worth and believed to be the first commercial bakery for the large round matzos outside of the Northeast, said Rabbi Dov Mandel of Chabad of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
It’s a shehechayanu moment indeed, as getting the operation off the ground presented an interesting set of challenges.
For years, Mandel ordered boxes of shmurah matzo from New York bakeries. However shipping costs combined with the product’s condition on arrival proved to be frustrating. “Matzos tend to break during shipping,” Mandel pointed out. In response, he decided to make his own matzos, and offer it to others.
Mandel delved into research, consulting with rabbinic authorities about grain, milling and preparation. He traveled to a small, home-based matzo bakery in Brooklyn, New York, to observe operations. He then had to find a farmer willing to sell small amounts of grain for his purposes. “It took me only a few hours of calling around for farmers to tell me they don’t sell grain to the public,” Mandel said.
He finally targeted a farmer in Tom Bean, Texas, willing to sell a small amount of grain, “small” being relative. “All I wanted was 100 pounds, but ended up taking 1,000 pounds,” Mandel said. “That’s actually a small quantity, relative to other bakeries.”
The grain was stored in bins at the Chabad house, while bakery logistics were put into play. “You have to have a separate room for water, and a separate room for the flour, and a space in the middle where they meet,” Mandel said. “There can’t be contact between the flour and water before the 18 minute-clock starts to click.”
Meanwhile, Mandel bought a cement pizza oven, capable of hot temperatures. He acquired firewood for the baking. Along the way, Mandel found a well for the water in Crowley, Texas, belonging to Cantor Monica J. O’Desky. The matzo bakery was ready to go by early 2020.
Then the coronavirus struck.
Mandel’s son, Mendel, was hospitalized, while the remainder of the family also caught it, experiencing varying symptoms. The bakery would be dormant for another year, with the prepared grain given to individuals. One recipient planned to sell the grain as feed for cattle. Another, an Afghani immigrant, used it to bake flatbread.
In year two of the Fort Worth Chabad matzo-making effort, Mandel began again. Rather than harvesting his own grain from Tom Bean, however, he decided to buy prepared grain from New York. “In the future, I do hope to have major operations, in terms of cleaning, grinding and milling my own flour,” he said.
Right now, the product coming out of the bakery is being distributed to rabbis throughout Texas who, in turn, are providing the product to congregants.
They are also providing to Jewish prisoners through the Aleph Institute, Chabad’s prisoner advocacy organization. “We agreed to help out by packing two matzos per box, and shipping them out,” Mandel said.
Currently, his bakery is not producing enough for the public. “Right now, we’ve sold the matzo to the few people who have heard about it,” Mandel said. He added that the public need for matzo, at this time, isn’t all that huge, as there are plenty of outlets from which to buy matzo. “But ours is definitely fresher,” he added.
Another side benefit of the operation has been job creation. “I wanted to offer great matzo locally,” Mandel observed. “I ended up hiring six Jewish people in Fort Worth to help with operations, giving them livelihoods, they otherwise wouldn’t have had. I didn’t think of this, but this has given jobs to local people.”
Mandel is hoping to get 2022/5782 matzo production operations up and running earlier. At that time, there shouldn’t be quarantine protocol issues or a historic, infrastructure-stopping winter storm. He would like to hire more people to assist and hopes to manufacture a higher quantity of matzos, with a higher degree of availability.
“We’ll see how it works,” he said. “My goal is not to become rich, but to provide quality, fresh matzo, as inexpensively as possible. If we can provide more quantity, we can lower the price.”