Rose Mattus

Co-founder of Häagen-Dazs


Rose Vesel, ice-cream manufacturer: born Manchester 23 November 1916; married 1936 Reuben Mattus (died 1994; two daughters); died Westwood, New Jersey 28 November 2006.

In 1959 Rose Mattus and her husband, Reuben, created the first nationally available American luxury ice-cream brand. It was high in butterfat (some sources say as high as 17 per cent) from using real cream, had plenty of egg yolks and other natural ingredients such as Belgian chocolate, vanilla beans from Madagascar and coffee from Colombia. The brand has since become international, and most ice-cream lovers will recognise this description of the origins of Häagen-Dazs.

The name is a nonsense, made up by the Mattuses during a brain-storming session on the living-room couch in their house in the Bronx, New York. Reuben thought it up - he had a vision of Danish milkmaids, ladling out cream, and it sounded Danish to his ears. Just to be certain, he added the umlaut over the first "a" (though this is not a feature of the Danish language) and a map of Denmark printed on each carton of ice-cream.

He chose Denmark, said Rose in her memoir, The Emperor of Ice Cream (2004), in tribute to the nation's decent treatment of its Jews during the Second World War. The recipe for the ice-cream was Reuben's responsibility, as ice-cream and dairy products were his family business, but Rose managed the business side of the brand.

She was born Rose Vesel in Manchester in 1916, to Polish Jewish parents who were theatrical costumiers. Their trade took the family to Belfast in the early Twenties, when Rose was about five, and they accompanied a theatre troupe there. They emigrated to New York shortly after that in 1921. Rose's speech sounded "English" to American ears (probably in the same way that my Whitechapel grandmother's accent did when we lived in Kentucky). After her husband's death in 1994, Rose returned to the back streets of Manchester, looking for her birthplace.

Arriving penniless in New York, Rose's family settled in the largely Jewish Brownsville district of Brooklyn. She met her husband-to-be, a Polish Jew who had arrived in America the same year, when they were still both in their early teens, at a neighbourhood youth club; they did not marry until 1936. She managed to get a high-school education, which Reuben, with a family business to join, did not.

The Mattus family had been equally poor, and Reuben's mother, Lea, was already widowed when they emigrated; but both families believed in hard work, and had bonds of mutual support with other Zionists. By the mid-1920s, Reuben and Lea were making lemon ice on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx, and delivering it to neighbouring retailers by horse-drawn wagon. Rose joined the firm after her marriage, and the business on the whole prospered, though the couple knew both hard times and business anxiety.

Häagen-Dazs began as one of Reuben's crazy ideas, but Rose was shrewd about marketing the premium ice-cream. (Even when, after the war, most commercial ice-creams were made with low-fat dried milk and artificial flavourings, local dairies all over America still made a real cream-and-egg product, though their distribution was also local.) Her first marketing ploy was to dress up elegantly (in keeping with the upmarket positioning of the brand), and give away free samples at local grocers. She was a formidable saleswoman: part of Mattus family lore was that she once talked a desperate mother into buying "20 pints of ice-cream for 20 kids at a birthday party".

Another part of her strategy was to market the brand to university students, and she made certain that ice-cream parlours near New York University in Greenwich Village carried Häagen-Dazs. The brand, which grew only slowly through the 1960s, was at first distributed nationally by Greyhound Bus deliveries to college towns, where she consciously targeted that generation's interest in drugs. "We found an alternative market," she said in her memoir, "one steeped in the marijuana culture of the Sixties." Häagen-Dazs became the ice-cream of choice to satisfy the munchies - the only question was whether your craving was best satisfied by Maple Pecan or Rocky Road.

However, once Häagen-Dazs had won the counterculture's endorsement, it had no problem in going mainstream. By the 1980s, with deep penetration in American supermarkets and a national chain of franchised ice-cream parlours, total annual sales were about $115m. But although, in 1981, Reuben said, "Haagen-Dazs is a family-run company, and I'm going to try to continue to run it like a small business," in 1983 Pillsbury paid $70m for the company, and decided to loosen links with the family.

"Here I was, an active woman," wrote Rose Mattus, "and I was being summarily dismissed." Before the sale became final, she confronted the Pillsbury executives. She said they cross-examined her, as though she was a defendant in a law suit, and demanded to know what degrees she had and what her qualifications were for running a business. Outraged, she asked the "well-educated, well-groomed, arrogant" men, "Do you think I am being treated fairly? Money is not what's important to me. Respect is." They capitulated and gave her an office.

In 1989, when Grand Metropolitan bought Pillsbury (now owned by General Mills), the Mattuses' ties with Häagen-Dazs came to an end. Within weeks, they had decided to start up a new venture, making low-fat ice-cream, finally using their own name for the Mattus Ice Cream Company.

Vanilla, incidentally, was the flavour favoured by Rose Mattus, who continued to eat quantities of it although she was diabetic.

Paul Levy

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