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Naftali Engel

I always had an affinity to cooking and loved to work with food in general. I guess I had an early exposure to herring from age seven

The scrunching of my nose gives me a headache as I recall my first experience eating herring. Onions and fish and brine remain in the recesses of my food memory. My mother, ever the mom who didn’t want to waste food, served me a chopped herring sandwich — in a pita, no less (how’s that for mixing culinary cultures). This memory may explain why I wasn’t that enthusiastic about my upcoming interview. Sure, Naftali Engel built an empire of herring and lox to feed the most discerning of palates, but… herring.

Ladies, I promise that after you read this article (and hopefully taste his herrings), you too will join the club.

Where did your herring aspirations begin?

My father was the gabbai and president of our shul in Kew Gardens Hills, and I set up the kiddush every Shabbos. I developed a real love for herring. I always had an affinity to cooking and loved to work with food in general. I guess I had an early exposure to herring from age seven!

When I studied in Israel, I couldn’t find anything comparable to the American-style herring I loved. I really missed that taste from home. Baruch Hashem, early on in my year, I visited my brother, who lives in Tzfas, for Shabbos. At the kiddush after Shacharis, I tasted the most amazing herring. I asked to meet its creator. He was very generous and gave me his recipe, which includes instructions to dance with the fish, say Tehillim with the fish, and learn a little Likutei Moharan.

Did you execute these “instructions”?

Well, I definitely learned a lot about the importance of understanding why we eat in general. This chassid in Tzfas taught me that eating is an essential part of our avodas Hashem if we do it with the right intentions.

On my way back from Tzfas, I stopped off at the shuk to get the necessary supplies, returned to my dorm, and dug into making my own herring. My grandfather was an Ostrover chassid who became Gerrer when the chassidus died out, my father is connected to Lubavitch, and I consider myself a chassid of the Baal Shem Tov, so I thought “the Rebbe’s Choice” would be a great name, since it’s a reminder of how many mitzvos we can do with eating. Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov said, “When I was young I wished I could accomplish with eating what I do with davening. Now I wish I could accomplish with davening what I do with eating.” (And I would like to think that these Rebbes would choose my herring first!)

Wait, go back. You made herring in a small enclosure like a dorm?

(Laughs) True. Herring is made by pickling the fish with vinegar or curing it with salt. The massive amount of onions in the recipe doesn’t help with the scent either. Plus, we had a bunch of other ingredients to make funky flavors. I can’t say that my roommates loved the smell, but they were happy to look the other way when they got free herring out of the deal.

Eventually I started selling it too. Guys from other yeshivos reached out, and I realized that I had a business rolling.

How did the business last when you returned home from Israel?

When I returned to the US, I started laying the groundwork to open up officially — getting a hechsher, licenses, inspections, insurances, all the fun stuff.

Soon I had 85 people purchasing from me on a weekly basis. Back then I sold just four herring flavors. I literally went from door to door to deliver each order. Then I approached a local grocery and asked if they would stock it. That evolved into getting into over one hundred kosher stores.

We also branched out into other salads and dips, along with kichel, smoked salmon, pickles, and even coffee. We can basically provide you with a complete kiddush from just our products.

It sounds like a LOT of herring. Where do you get your supply?

Our herrings are caught overseas and begin their initial processing there. Then they’re shipped to local ports via ship-ping container vessels, and we receive them at our facility in Long Island City for further processing. You can catch herring in America too, but the local herring mostly goes to animal feed or is sold as bait

What do you think makes it such a popular food?

Herring is a delicious, protein-packed food that tastes great on its own but is also a blank canvas waiting to be painted with the brush of any flavor. Cuisines all over the world have their own herring recipes. What we manufacture is a spin on the classic European-style herring — pickled or cured. In Japan they have herring sushi; in the Philippines they have herring fillets that are sun-dried and then fried.

Any signs that you were in the right business?

I outsourced the label design to a graphics person overseas. When the illustrator showed me the picture of the rebbe that we now use for our label, I jokingly said, “I’m going to marry this rebbe’s daughter one day.”

Well, when I met my wife Remi’s father, it was uncanny to see his resemblance to the picture! They say behind every great man is an even greater woman, and I can say for sure that Remi has helped me grow the business in many ways, from helping me do a sales pitch occasionally to teaching me how to market our products properly. Her support alone shows me that I’m doing something right.

Naftali in 60 Seconds

Lives in Kew Gardens Hills with his wife, Remi.

Most eclectic flavor: Honey Mustard Sriracha Herring. We currently have 11 different herring flavors, but I’m working on offering a special seasonal flavor, depending on the time of year.

The flavor I’m most likely to take home for my Shabbos table: Maple Bourbon Herring.

What I snack on when I need a break from fish: Ice pops.

Biggest challenge in the business and how I manage that stress: One of our biggest challenges is reaching the consumer. Many people have been purchasing the same brand of herring for many years, so introducing a change to their routine herring purchase has been a unique challenge that we tackle on a daily basis. But I try my best not to get stressed, usually by reminding myself that everything comes from Above and it’s all going to work out. Inevitably stress still happens, and usually listening to music helps!

(Originally featured in Family Table, Issue 727)

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