The secret to making delicious Jewish soul food didn’t take long for caterer/restaurateur David Mintz of Tenafly to figure out: he simply hired genuine bubbies to cook traditional dishes like kasha and knishes.
The secret to making delicious pareve ice cream, however, took him nearly a decade to crack.
When he finally hit upon his successful formula in 1981, Mr. Mintz opened new vistas in kosher and dairy-free cuisine — and that was long before “vegan” was a household word.
Mr. Mintz died on February 24, some three months shy of his 90th birthday and about seven weeks after the death of his wife, Rachel.
Tofutti Brands is without a doubt the most famous of Mr. Mintz’s achievements. Tofutti, which has its headquarters in Cranford, now makes about 30 soy-based products sold across the United States and in 25 other countries ranging from Australia to Trinidad.
Steve Kass, Tofutti Brand’s chief financial officer, worked with Mr. Mintz for nearly 35 years and said that the modest founder never let success or wealth go to his head.
“Over the course of my nearly 50-year working career, I have been involved with many knowledgeable and successful business executives,” Mr. Kass said. “However, I never knew anyone who had the work ethic and drive that David had. He was a work dynamo.
“Whereas many other businesspeople would have been happy with something that was good or very good, David never stopped in his goal of attaining product excellence, no matter how much of his time it took to achieve it. Nothing left Tofutti’s R&D laboratory until David was 100 percent satisfied that it was perfect.”
Mr. Mintz also left a local legacy at Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly, one of many Chabad endeavors to which he gave generously — beyond generously, as you will read about below.
“If workaholic was half of David, the other half was charitable,” Mr. Kass said.
“It was the one thing he basically lived for, to do charitable work, especially with Chabad. He was literally that person who would give the shirt off his back to help out anyone in need. He was the gold standard when it came to charity, the example everyone should emulate.”
Mr. Mintz had lived in Alpine for a long time, but he spent his last years living full-time in his “Shabbos house” in Tenafly, two blocks from the Chabad Center that he helped build.
Rabbi Mordechai Shain, the executive director of Lubavitch on the Palisades, met Mr. Mintz in 1993, when the fledgling Chabad Center held its first High Holy Days service at the Clinton Inn in Tenafly. A few months later, Mr. Mintz donated the congregation’s first new Torah scroll.
Mr. Mintz, born to a baker in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had been educated in a Lubavitcher yeshiva and regularly consulted with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“He took us like we were his child that he wanted to help develop,” Rabbi Shain said. “The way I describe David is ‘crazy good.’ I mean that seriously. He would do crazy good things that all his accountants and attorneys advised against.
“For example, many years ago, when we needed a property to expand the center, and we had about one day to do a silent auction and come up with the money, he came with the bid and the check. He just did it, boom.
“Usually when you ask someone to co-sign on a mortgage, no one wants to do that because of the responsibility. He did that any time we needed,” Rabbi Shain continued. “Sometimes he would borrow thousands of dollars to give to charity. He was not just a supporter; it was his life. He built us from scratch and was president of Lubavitch on the Palisades for many years. He lived and breathed this Chabad Center.”
David and Rachel Mintz’s only child, Ethan, had his bar mitzvah in the Tenafly shul.
Even after Ms. Mintz became ill and went to live in a care facility, Mr. Mintz would invite scores of people for Friday night Shabbat dinners that he prepared himself. “I love to feed people,” he told the Jewish Standard in a 2008 interview.
Indeed, Mr. Kass and Rabbi Shain said, Mr. Mintz was both a fiery leader and a people person.
“David used to spend hours in the shul after services talking to people,” Rabbi Shain recalled. “Sometimes a wealthy guy doesn’t relate to people. David was down to earth, and he related to everyone like a mensch.”
The publisher of the Jewish Standard, Jamie Janoff, recalled sharing many Friday dinner conversations with Mr. Mintz at his Tenafly “Shabbos house.”
“Long before tofu became a popular staple in many diets, he knew that soy-based, dairy-free foods had more far-reaching possibilities,” Mr. Janoff said. “He was always thinking, always in his lab creating.
“He would say it was his job to think of what was missing in the food category and how he could fill that need. And, over the years, David hit many home runs and marveled how his Tofutti products became the dairy substitute in refrigerators throughout our catchment area and afar.”
Mr. Mintz reportedly also supported many other Chabad Lubavitch projects across the world, including some Chabad centers led by children of his late brother, Rabbi Isaac Gershon Mintz.
In his interview with The Jewish Standard in 2008, Mr. Mintz explained that before he concocted the original Tofutti ice cream, he operated three successful kosher eateries, including Mintz’s Buffet on Third Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East.
When that property was razed in the 1970s to make way for a Trump project, Mr. Mintz was offered a location on the West Side. As usual, he consulted with the Lubavitcher rebbe, who advised him to forget about the restaurant and continue focusing on developing pareve ice cream — something he’d been tinkering with as a side experiment. Mr. Mintz took those words to heart and devoted all his time to perfecting the product he first dubbed Tofu Time.
“He gave me a roadmap for what to do,” Mr. Mintz remembered, back in 2008. “Everything bad, he told me, is a blessing in disguise. Think positive. Don’t get discouraged. The good Lord will help you.”