When Neal Hoffman’s 4-year-old son Jacob told him during the 2012 holiday season that he wanted an “Elf on the Shelf” — the popular toy version of Santa’s little helper — the stay-at-home Jewish dad had no clue that simple request for a present would lead to an unexpectedly successful business.
“We were literally in a department store and he brought one over to me and asked if I can get this,” the senior Hoffman said in an interview with The Fiscal Times.
This situation, which Hoffman calls “our December dilemma,” is familiar to many Jewish parents. Nonetheless, Hoffman told Jacob he wouldn’t buy him the popular yuletide toy but promised that the boy could have a “Mensch on a Bench,” a Jewish alternative. Only, at that point, the Mensch on a Bench didn’t exist.
“It was like a light went on,” said Hoffman, who knows the toy business from his tenure at Hasbro, where he worked with top sellers such as GI Joe and Tonka trucks.
Within days, Hoffman created the story of “Moshe,” a character who with his felt hat, thick beard and prayer shawl looks like he could fit into a cartoon version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Some Orthodox Jews have told Hoffman that they like the “Mensch” because he looks like one of them, albeit in a 12-inch size.
“Mensch” is a Yiddish word that means a righteous or honorable person, and Hoffman credited “Moshe” with the awesome responsibility of watching over the oil that unexpectedly burned for eight days in the ancient Jewish temple, according to lore — the miracle at the heart of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is not the “Jewish equivalent of Christmas,” but the two holidays fall at roughly the same time each year and many Jews have adopted aspects of Christmas, as the plethora of “Chrismakah” merchandise indicates. Many Jews in the U.S. didn’t start giving elaborate Christmas-like gifts on Hanukkah until fairly recently. “Clearly the custom of exchanging gifts at this time of the year has influenced the Jewish community in the U.S.,” Rabbi Victor S. Appell, congregational marketing director at the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an email.
Hoffman is trying to create a new tradition for the holiday, which celebrates not just the miracle of the oil but also the military victory of a group of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees over the Seleucids who ruled Israel at the time.
Hoffman’s modern Hanukkah tale, though, is nearly as improbable as the ancient one. Not only did Hoffman trademark the name “Mensch on a Bench” three days ahead of someone else, he also raised $25,000 from a Kickstarter campaign. Word of mouth publicity for the product has been especially strong.
“I held off on launching the website” to iron out some production problems, Hoffman said, adding that Moshe debuted in cyberspace on Oct. 31, 2013. “By November 9, we were completely sold out.”
“Moshe” mania is continuing in 2014. Hoffman expects to do $800,000 in sales this year, moving more than 50,000 Mensches and generating a profit for Hoffman. “We could have probably sold 100,000 units this year,” he said.
“Moshe” is being promoted on Target.com and is available at other retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond. Hoffman, though, says he is building his business slowly because he doesn’t want to oversaturate the market and create a fad that will inevitably fade from the public’s consciousness. At the suggestion of partner David Scher, Hoffman arranged for major retailers to take delivery of their orders in China, enabling him to operate his business without any inventory costs, a huge savings.
“Moshe” will become even more famous this week, when Hoffman is set to appear on an episode of the hit ABC show Shark Tank. The creator went on the show to attract new investors who could fund his expansion plans.
Hoffman wasn’t able to discuss what happened on the show before it airs, but he did say he has plenty of ideas on how to move Moshe into new products. First, he’s focusing on conquering another Jewish holiday, Passover. Hoffman figures the Mensch would be a welcome guest at many Jewish seders.
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