Many people have heard of and enjoyed Haagen-Dazs ice cream, but the story of its beginning is equally cool. A headline in JGirls+ Magazine from 2022 says it all: “Haagen-Dazs: A Jewish Story of Immigration, Entrepreneurship, and Ice Cream.” The story began with Reuben Mattus (originally Nifka Matus), born in Grodna, Poland in 1913 who arrived in New York City in 1921 with his widowed mother and older sister.
Reuben’s father Nathan had died during the First World War. They first settled in Brooklyn, where his mother joined a relative making Italian lemon ices. Reuben grew up squeezing those lemons and delivering the product by horse and buggy to local stores.
The 1930 census of Brooklyn finds him at age 17, working in an ice cream shop, and according to JGirls+ Magazine “he was traversing the city selling ice cream bars and sandwiches from a horse drawn cart. Forty years later he would achieve his dream of revolutionizing the ice cream world.”
Reuben was a manager in an ice cream factory in The Bronx according to the 1940 and 1950 census. Throughout this time, he was experimenting with ice cream recipes, as he wanted to make a better ice cream, one which featured more butterfat and less air than what was being sold in stores.
He also wanted it to sound imported and Scandanavian, so in 1960 he invented the word “Haagen-Dazs” and started his own business. He even placed a picture of Denmark on the cartons.
Even though it cost more, it was an immediate success. His wife Rose helped by hand delivering samples to delicatessens in their Jewish community. They were also marketing to college students who were more interested in natural foods during the 1960s. A humorous advertisement was printed in The Bridgeport [CT] Telegram in 1961 featuring “Miss Haagen-Dazs dressed in her native Norwegian costume.”
Although Haagen-Dazs was manufactured in The Bronx, Reuben would not list it in The Bronx phone book (it was included in the Manhattan book). He told Newsday (Nassau edition) in 1973 that “It has snob appeal. That’s why I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to let people know it comes from the Bronx.” The was the year the first store was opened, in Brooklyn. That gourmet “snob appeal” apparently worked, as there were 37 franchises by 1979.
The Daily News ran this headline that October: “Pint-sized Luxury has a Big Future: Haagen-Dazs Deserts the Bronx for National Stardom.” The business had moved to Perth Amboy, N.J., with wife Rose as business manager and daughter Doris managing the franchises. And for the first time the business began to advertise.
The 1980s brought more changes as Haagen-Dazs was sold to Pillsbury in 1983 for $70 million. Following open heart surgery in 1985, Reuben became more interested in making a lower fat product, which he called Mattus.
In 1993, the Buffalo News in 1993 featured a photo of Reuben, age 80 with his new product and the headline: “Haagen-Dazs Founder Scooping Lower Fat Product.” It was even served at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parties. Reuben showed no signs of retiring at age 80, stating “I will retire right before I’m buried.”
Reuben died a year later, on January 27, 1994 while vacationing in Deerfield Beach, Florida. His obituary appeared all over the country, from New York to Los Angeles; from Mississippi to Chicago and Montreal. Survivors included his wife Rose, daughters Doris and Natalie, six grandchildren, and one great granddaughter.
The New York Times added that – “the products popularity in supermarkets led to a coast-to-coast string of hundreds of franchise stores, and ultimately they spread as far as Tokyo.” His gravestone in Paramus, New Jersey (from Findagrave.com) reads – “Reuben Mattus A Man of Vision. To Him Nothing was Impossible.”
Reuben’s wife Rose died in 2006. She was honored in 2023 on International Women’s Day. The General Mills website included a photo from her Brooklyn High School yearbook where Reuben wrote a love note to her in 1935.
Illustrations, from above: Rueben and Rose Mattus (courtesy Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream company); Häagen-Dazs’ first store at 120 Montague Street, Brooklyn, NY