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.