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

When life gives you lemons — build an ultra-premium, kosher ice cream empire. 

Before making millions with a 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. Little did he know, 40 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 started experimenting with ice cream recipes. Reuben went on to spend 25 years working like a mad scientist in his own small kitchen until he developed an ice cream formula that was entirely new,  innovative, and, he believed, utterly delicious. With 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 foreign-sounding (read: fancy), uniquely recognizable, and of personal significance. To honor the Danish for smuggling Jews out of German-occupied Europe during World War II, 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 exotic feel – even though umlauts have never been part of the Danish alphabet.  

Although Reuben wanted his ice cream to have an exotic flair, he also wanted to make sure it was accessible to the Jewish community. “If I made good ice cream, I wanted my people to get it, so I made it kosher,” Reuben remarked in an interview with famed Jewish cookbook author and journalist Joan Nathan.  

Häagen-Dazs started small, with Rose hand-delivering ice cream samples to delicatessen owners across the city. It was an instant hit with the local Jewish community, but the Mattus’ hoped to bring Häagen-Dazs to the world stage and devised a unique marketing strategy to make it possible. 

Rose recognized the emerging hippie culture of the early ‘60s as an untapped market. In order 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” after smoking marijuana. Due to its popularity in a niche market, word spread without the Mattus’ needing 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 Mattus’ sold their company to Pillsbury in 1983 to focus on family life and enjoy their 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. 


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.

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Ilena Moses is a freshman at Westridge School in California. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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