Häagen-Dazs Sounds Fancy, But What Does It Really Mean?

With premium flavors like White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Vanilla Swiss Almond, not to mention a brand logo that looks like a royal crest and a name that practically melts in your mouth, Häagen-Dazs has all the qualities of a storied European company. Perhaps it began in a quaint Danish village, from a recipe passed down through the Häagen family. Or perhaps Häagen-Dazs translates to something decadent, like “Delicious Memory” or “Pint of Happiness.” Maybe it’s Danish for “Screw Your Diet.”

Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Turns out, the official ice cream of binge-watching Netflix on the couch began not in an Alpine village but in the Bronx. And that fancy name with the umlaut dangling over it? Completely meaningless.

The real story behind Häagen-Dazs is about good old-fashioned American determination and marketing. The founder, Reuben Mattus, immigrated to the U.S. from Belarus as a child in 1921 along with his mother, Lea, and sister. After settling in Brooklyn, Reuben and Lea went to work for her brother, who owned an Italian ice company. Each day, the two would squeeze lemons to make the ices, then peddle them around the neighborhood using a horse-pulled wagon. This was back in the days before refrigeration, so the ice had to be shaved by hand from huge blocks that had been shipped in during the wintertime from Lake Michigan. Despite the labor-intensive process, mother and son prospered, and by 1929 Lea had saved up enough money to open her own company, Senator Frozen Products. Reuben went to work for Senator in the Bronx, selling ice pops, ice cream bars, and ice cream sandwiches, and for more than two decades, he helped the company turn a tidy profit year after year. In 1936, he got married and bought into the family business.

Following World War II, more people began shopping at grocery stores, where large ice cream makers dominated the freezer cases. This didn’t bode well for small outfits like Senator. Mattus knew that the company, which primarily sold to candy stores and luncheonettes, couldn’t compete with the big guys on price, and he wasn’t confident it could compete on quality, either. For years, he’d been pushing his mother to upgrade Senator’s ice cream to a more premium formula—one that had less air and more butterfat. And for years, Lea had turned him down, arguing that the family needed to stick to what it did best.

Frustrated, Mattus—whose expertise was more on the sales and marketing side of the business—began researching ice cream making on his own.

“The first thing I told my mother was to fire our ice cream maker,” Mattus told writer Joan Nathan.

By the 1950s, Senator had taken enough of a beating in the marketplace that Lea relented, allowing Mattus to develop a premium brand he called Ciro’s. It was the first Senator product to enter the supermarket arena, and for two years it sold quite well—so well, in fact, that it got the attention of the big manufacturers, who attempted to squeeze it off the shelves.

“When the large companies found out I was infringing on them, they almost put me out of business,” Mattus told The New York Times in 1983. “It was a question of my finding some niche in the business and not getting in any conflicts with them.”

That niche, Mattus felt, was a super-premium ice cream that would offer more flavor for more money. Where other manufacturers were focused on cheapness and efficiency, he would go upscale. It was a risky idea, but Mattus was confident that people would pay more for a better-tasting treat. For a while, Mattus worked on his recipe, honing the texture and the flavor until he got it just right. He bought all new equipment and prepared to start his own company with his wife, Rose, who worked as a bookkeeper for Senator, as his business partner.

As a marketing man, though, Mattus knew that success would take more than just hard work and great tasting ice cream. His new brand needed to have cachet—that air of exclusivity that would elevate it above its roots as a small, striving company from the Bronx.

Or, to put it another way: “The number one thing was to get a foreign sounding name,” Mattus told Nathan.

In a PBS documentary from 1999, Mattus’s daughter Doris recalled her father sitting at the kitchen table late one night pronouncing various made-up names, trying to come up with one that sounded right. Mattus himself would say he wanted the name to sound Danish, since it seemed fancy, and because he wanted to acknowledge Denmark for its kindness toward the Jews during World War II. The title he eventually settled on, Häagen-Dazs, was essentially gibberish—the Danish language doesn’t even use an umlaut over the letter a. But what did that matter to the American ice cream consumer? Mattus forged ahead with the idea, even printing maps of Scandinavia on the first tubs. In 1959 he and Rose established their company, and in 1961, Häagen-Dazs hit stores with three flavors: chocolate, vanilla and coffee. Mattus’s premium ingredients were key: the chocolate came from Belgium, the vanilla from Madagascar, and the coffee from Colombia. Where other brands typically sold for around 50 cents a pint, Häagen-Dazs sold for 75.

The gamble paid off. By the 1970s, pints of Häagen-Dazs were in supermarkets and convenience stores across the country. In 1976, Doris took charge of the first branded ice cream shop, starting a chain of openings that has led to more than 900 stores in 50 different countries. The little company from the Bronx had entered the big, complex world of global food: In 1983, Pillsbury bought Häagen-Dazs, and in 2001 General Mills absorbed Pillsbury, then sold North American licensing rights for the ice cream brand to Nestlé. Today, it’s one of the best-selling ice cream brands in the world.

Interestingly, Häagen-Dazs’s success has spawned other fancy-sounding brands over the years. There was Alpen Zauber (“Alpine Magic,” in German), which touted a “Swiss commitment to excellence” despite being made in Brooklyn, and Früsen Gladjé (Swedish for “Frozen Delight”), which cultivated an over-the-top luxury image, with marketing materials calling it “the ice cream that appeals to the sybaritic buyer with a taste for the very finest” (it was manufactured in Utica, New York).

What’s in a name, after all? Not much, judging by the fact that nonsensical Häagen-Dazs is still on shelves while its imitators have been relegated to old news stories and Wikipedia. Rather, the success of the company Reuben Mattus started more than 50 years ago seems to stem from a continued focus on sourcing premium ingredients and leaving out all the fake stuff. Even though it's owned by the same company that makes Trix cereal and Totino’s pizza rolls, Häagen-Dazs still abstains from using artificial flavors, preservatives, or stabilizers.

So while the name might not technically mean anything, it's certainly recognizable. And as Mattus (who passed away in 1994) so correctly predicted, that's really all that matters.

Begins and Ends: European Cities
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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