Mere mention of our well-known town conjures up images of thousands of yungeleit attending kollel.
What likely does not spring into mind, however, is a major business and industrial center.
To a certain degree, Lakewood can proudly boast a host of successful businesses within its borders, run by both frum yidden and non-Jews. Lakewood's frum companies do not only exist within our renowned ihr Hatorah despite the community's primary goal of furthering Torah study. Rather, the companies themselves feature much of the community's values in their history and business model.
This article will profile one company which features distinctly Lakewood values in its history and business model.
Rabbi Ephraim Schwinder is a Bais Medrash Govoha (BMG) alumnus who has been part of the Lakewood kehilla since 1970.
In 1981, after learning several years in kollel, Reb Ephraim felt the need to earn a parnassah for his growing family. Naturally, he felt the need to consult his (BMG) Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Shneur Kotler zt"l, about his potential leap from BMG into the business world, a rarity in Lakewood at that point in time.
Rav Shneur replied, "Es iz shoin tzeit far Lakewood tzu huben unzere eigen (surt) baalebatim"-it's time for Lakewood to have its own group of unique torahdigebaalebatim. With the imperative of earning a livelihood with Torah values fully in mind, Reb Ephraim set out into the business world.
One day, a close friend, Reb Boruch Lubowski zt"l, half-jokingly showed Reb Ephraim a newspaper clipping about the emergence of popcorn as a sought-after snack.
The joke turned quite serious when Reb Ephraim proceeded to arduously research the world of popcorn production. At the time, there had previously been only one small company of Kosher popcorn, which had already been off the market.
In their small apartment on Ninth Street and Clifton Avenue, the Schwinders purchased small popcorn producing machines and, with the help of a few local bachurim, cooked and packed bags of popcorn under the label "Golden Fluff."
Reb Ephraim chuckles as he recalls Golden Fluff's original delivery vehicle. "We removed the back seat of my car and stuffed in as much popcorn at a time as we were able to!"
Having received a warm welcome on the Kosher food market in Lakewood and beyond, Golden Fluff's "yeshivishe" makeshift factory no longer sufficed.
In 1983, the fledgling business then acquired a small 600 square foot storefront on Second Street between Clifton and Lexington Avenues. Now in the heart of downtown Lakewood's shopping district, that location was then a very dangerous, deserted neighborhood.
At the new Golden Fluff factory, more appropriate commercial popcorn producing and packaging machinery were purchased to deal with their popcorn's spiraling popularity.
However, these facilities, too, were soon to be outgrown. Demand for their products quickly exceeded the Second Street facility's maximum capacity.
Consequently, a significantly larger 3,000 square foot building near the Park Avenue-Route 88 intersection became Golden Fluff's new home.
With their greatly expanded production and storage facilities, an entirely new phase in Golden Fluff's history was enabled to begin taking shape.
Golden Fluff began producing the first commercial Kosher potato sticks, flavored popcorn, tortilla chips, and other snacks on the market.
Along with an expanded product line came a growing profile. Reb Ephraim recalls, "Golden Fluff slowly became a household name, with customers demanding our products from vendors. Our products were demanded, and distributed, in localities across the United States."
Monmouth Avenue Building
As our esteemed readers may very well have inferred by now, Golden Fluff's Park Avenue facilities wouldn't suffice for the long term, either.
Indeed, in 2001, with Reb Ephraim's son Shloimy joining the business, Golden Fluff purchased the former Lakewood ACME supermarket building, which is located on the corner of Second Street and Monmouth Avenue. This spacious 20,000-plus square foot facility represented a giant leap forward for the now-renowned food manufacturer and remains Golden Fluff's home to this very day.
The company's headquarters houses its entire administrative and sales staff, as well as its sophisticated, large-scale production equipment and warehousing facilities. Golden Fluff's products are now found in groceries and major retail chains throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
Popcorn's Many Products
A glance at Golden Fluff's updated product list could easily leave one wondering at how the "fluff" in their name came about.
Sure, they feature just about every variety of popcorn imaginable. Yet, the over two-hundred unrelated products now being offered by the company virtually drown out their namesake.
A full line of fried snacks, sweet and colored snacks, drinks, and chocolates are enjoyed by consumers world wide. Another unique Golden Fluff offering is the "Dontil" line of chewing-gum products. You can now tell the dentist about your chewing habit too, as "Dontil" includes Xylitol, a natural ingredient that actively fights tooth decay.
Golden Fluff's "Nuts Galore" brand features a full line of nuts and dried fruits, which they find to be particularly popular during the Pesach season. Another desired product, both Pesach and year-round, is Golden Fluff's line of exclusive Market International kitchen accessories. Kitchenware, such as colorful Kashrus labels, strainers and peelers, along with a full line of upscale disposable dishes, also complement the Golden Fluff food line.
One can sense an immense sense of accomplishment in Reb Ephraim's voice as he reminisces over what is perhaps his most revolutionary product yet. "During the late 1980's, the great Lakewood posek Rav Shimon Eider zt"l and I spent years seeking to produce an as-of-then unavailable Kosher gelatin. Gelatin is, of course, a vital ingredient in many food products and is typically animal-derived. In 1991, b'chasdei Hashem, we managed to produce the world's first accepted gelatin. Our current "Elyon" gelatin and gelatin-derived marshmallow products are the only such products on the market that are approved by the "OU" and the Manchester Bais Din."
Aside from the obvious pride that Reb Ephraim takes in the content of his products, he stresses that the packaging says much about it too. No, not the graphics. Reb Ephraim explains, "Every one of our company's products bears the words 'Lakewood, New Jersey' on the label and that means a lot to me. I feel particularly close to BMG and all that our ihr Hatorah represents. When I meet salesmen or other business acquaintances who are unfamiliar with Golden Fluff's base, I usually give them a whole pep-talk about all the Torah and chessed that goes on in our town. I often tell those I meet in Lakewood to take a drive through Seventh Street (where BMG is located) on their way out of town."
Golden Fluff products also pioneered two of Lakewood's premier hechsherim. Lakewood's Satmar Dayan, Rav Mordechai Betzalel Klein shlit"a is the Rav hamachshir on Golden Fluff products since he arrived to Lakewood until today. Lakewood'smain Kashrus authority, the KCL, counts the Nut Galore line as the first commercial product they certified, which helped them gain recognition well beyond Lakewood.
On a personal note, Reb Ephraim sees heeding his rebbi Rav Shneur's call as an unwielding duty. "Although I'm running a business, I try focusing my goal on supporting Torah as much as possible. We employ Kollel-wives, along with other frum workers. I, baruch Hashem, have all of my five sons-in-law learning in BMG. I didn't strive to have them help me in my business; I'm much happier to have them in Bais Medrash."
When the Lakewood municipality approved Golden Fluff's acquisition of their present facility, government officials welcomed this development as a proud Lakewood landmark. To this day, Golden Fluff is open to public tours. Local yeshivos, camps, local Jewish and non-Jewish residents frequent the facilities, as do groups and mosdos who come to visit Lakewood. Baalei simcha tend to pop in as Shabbos approaches to obtain last-minute snacks for their simchos.
Golden Fluff is a common sponsor and partner in many local mosdos and tzedaka events, including BMG, Tomchei Shabbos. Coordinators of Lakewood's Avos Ubanim learning program flood the company's warehouse on the relevant Fridays and turn it into a hub of snack collection for the tinnokos shel beis rabban. "I try being a good neighbor," Reb Ephraim quips.
He then turns to relate a poignant story about a lifelong lesson of the importance of giving to the community.
During Golden Fluff's earliest years, a local talmid chacham was suddenly niftar, leaving behind a large family. Reb Ephraim, whose business was still in its infancy, immediately donated (sixty-times chai) $1,080 to the family, then a fairly substantial sum. Several weeks later, he received a surprising phone call from a non-Jewish resident of northern New Jersey who had discovered his business. The man explained that he was arranging a children's fair and needed an unspecified amount of popcorn-as much as will fit into his truck.
When the man's truck pulled up, Golden Fluff's skeleton crew raced to produce and upload as much popcorn as possible. As they kept on loading, they maxed out at exactly five-hundred-forty sacks. At two-dollars a sack, that totaled $1,080.
As a result, Reb Ephraim explains, "I always live with the bitachon that if I'll do what's right, Hashem will help me succeed."