It was a stroke of marketing genius straight out of the television series Mad Men. Looking for a way to distinguish their new brand of ice cream from the other competitors in the New York area, the owners searched for a name that would suggest foreign, exotic, and luxurious. After numerous attempts at made-up, nonsensical names they finally landed on the one that would launch an empire.
“The most important thing is to make it taste good,” Häagen-Dazs founder Reuben Mattus told Tabletmag.com. ”But the second most important thing was to market it properly. “I prided myself on being a marketing man. If you’re the same like everybody else, you’re lost. The number one thing was to get a foreign sounding name.”
Ice Cream Was In the Family Blood
Many years before Häagen-Dazs was launched in 1960, the Mattus family was selling frozen refreshments as a way of life. Reuben Mattus arrived in America from Poland in 1921 at the age of 10 with his widowed mother. To make some much-needed money, they helped Reuben’s uncle who was in the Italian lemon ice business in the Bronx. They would squeeze lemons and then helped sell the refreshments on a horse drawn cart.
The family later expanded their product line to include ice pops and chocolate covered ice cream bars and sandwiches which they sold under the name Senator Frozen Products. Back in the early days, the production process was light years away from the way it’s done today.
“In those days, we bought the ice from the Great Lakes in the winter and buried it with sawdust in pits in the ground until summer,” Mattus told tabletmag.com “People wouldn’t buy our ice cream. I said to myself, ‘Why can’t we make good ice cream so people will buy it?’ Then I got a hold of some books and studied how to make ice cream. The first thing I told my mother was to fire our ice-cream maker.”
The Commitment to Quality
The family business was doing well but when year-round refrigeration hit the mainstream in the 1950’s, the major ice cream suppliers entered into a price war which Mattus knew would kill his business.
“I realized I couldn’t keep up and maintain any kind of quality,” he told People Magazine in 1981. “I thought maybe if I made the very best ice cream, people would be willing to pay for it.”
So with his wife and business partner Rose whom he married in 1936, they set out to make a quality ice cream that would justify the higher price. In order to do that, they knew they had to use only all natural ingredients. At that time, most store-bought ice cream was made with artificial flavoring and nonfat dry milk. For Häagen-Dazs, Mattus used “egg yolks and real cream, as well as ingredients like Belgian chocolate, vanilla beans from Madagascar and coffee from Colombia,” according to a New York Times article in 2006.
“Schrafft’s cost 52 cents a pint. Ours was 75 cents a pint,” Mattus told Tabletmag. “I didn’t believe in selling it for 59 cents. I made a special ice cream for people who wanted a special taste. That was my attempt and it worked. It sold by word of mouth.”
Growing the Business as a Family
While Reuben worked away adding new flavors to the roster, Rose worked behind the scene keeping the business operations on track. Those close to the operation could see how important she was to the success of Häagen-Dazs.
“Rose was a true partner of her husband in operating the business, making decisions,” Roy Sloane, the company’s advertising manager until 1987, told the New York Times. “Reuben was a true dairy expert, a bug about quality. Rose basically ran the business, holding the company together and making it possible for a dreamer like Reuben to be successful.”
By 1973 Häagen-Dazs could be found in supermarkets all over the world but its next big breakthrough would come three years later at the suggestion of their daughter Doris who had joined the family business. In 1976 Doris opened the first independent Häagen-Dazs shop. The test balloon was such a success that other stores popped up one after another until the total reached 251 across the United States in 2011.
A Graceful Exit
By the early 1980’s Häagen-Dazs had cemented itself as one of the most successful elite ice cream brands in the United States. With Reuben and Rose both in their 70’s, it was time to sell. In 1983 Pillsbury agreed to buy Häagen-Dazs for a cool sum of $70 million.
Although Häagen-Dazs was no longer family owned, it was still family controlled. After the sale, the company continued to be managed by Doris who took the title of president and general manager of the franchising company. Her husband, Kevin Hurley, served as president and general manager of the retail sales operations. And Reuben served as chairman of the division when it became part of Pillsbury’s consumer foods group.
Reuben was asked many times over the years what Häagen-Dazs meant. He told People Magazine, “We made a name and created a meaning for it. It means ‘the best.’”
On that, there can be no debate.