Häagen-Dazs’ store in the Bronx, via Yelp
Despite its European-sounding name, Häagen-Dazs is actually born and bred right here in New York. In fact, there’s a fascinating history behind how the brand reached national success under a seemingly random title, picked by two immigrants from Poland. It all started in 1921, when the Polish Jewish couple Reuben and Rose Mattus emigrated to New York, according to Atlas Obscura. They worked for the family’s ice cream business, selling fruit ice and ice cream pops from a horse-drawn wagon in the busy streets of the Bronx. In the 1960s, Reuben and Rose struck out on their own, starting an ice cream company with three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and coffee.
Reuben invented the Danish-sounding Häagen-Dazs name because he thought it conveyed an “aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship,” according to the Huffington Post. He also told Tablet Magazine he was inspired by Denmark because it was “the only country which saved the Jews during World War II.” But it was basically created at random, with Reuben’s daughter saying that her father sat at the kitchen table for hours saying nonsensical words until he came up with a combination he liked.
The ‘ä’ umlaut was added even though that punctuation mark doesn’t exist in the Danish language; in fact, “Häagen-Dazs” has no actual meaning in Danish–or any other language–and does not follow Danish language conventions. But the Mattus’ felt the unique name would help the product stand out. The original ice cream cartons even carried a map of Denmark to give the impression that the product was European.
The brand flourished, and by 1973, pints were getting shipped around the country. In 1976, the first scoop shop opened in Brooklyn. And in 1983, Pillsbury acquired the company and started shipping it around the world. The Euro-centric marketing tactic worked in supermarkets all over. Though a study informing customers in a German supermarket that Häagen-Dazs wasn’t Danish, but from the Bronx, caused a 68 percent drop in the willingness to buy it.
Häagen-Dazs even tried to take ownership over the European conventions it used for its name and branding. In 1980, according to Atlas Obscura, a New York dairy began selling a brand of ice cream called Frusen Glädjé. (The name translates roughly to “frozen delight.”) Shortly after the brand launched–with a map of Scandinavia on the carton–it was sued by Häagen-Dazs. Here’s a quote from the initial complaint: “Plaintiff concludes that defendants have intentionally packaged their product in a manner calculated to trade upon ‘plaintiff’s unique Scandinavian marketing theme.”
Häagen-Dazs lost the court battle, and Frusen Glädjé eventually went out of business. As for the Bronx-born ice cream, it lives on as an internationally-recognized brand now owned by General Mills. You can even order Häagen-Dazs right in the Bronx, at its Grand Concourse store.
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