Since 2015, when he moved to the Twin Cities from Chicago, David Hirsch was working 80-hour weeks with little time to connect with the Jewish community here.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, with a job change, he was working more normal 40-hour weeks.
“All of a sudden, I had time on my hands,” Hirsch said. “It felt like, after five and a half years, I was now coming up for air with the chance to do other things.”
While sourdough baking was all the rage for people cooped up in the early days of the pandemic, among Jews, challah baking took off. Hirsch tried his hand at a friend’s challah recipe, then turned to a different Jewish staple: Mandel bread, the Eastern European cousin of biscotti that often has nuts, raisins, and chocolate baked in.
“I decided to ask my mom, I was like, ‘We had mandel bread at every high holiday, every family gathering – you made it, my aunt made it, grandma made it. I feel like I should know how to make this,’” he said.
His mom sent over the recipe, and soon Hirsch had a routine: He’d take a walk with his mom (his parents live close by in Minneapolis) and then head back to his parents’ house to bake mandel bread together.
“We tried a bunch of different recipes in the family,” he said. “My aunt’s got one, grandma’s got one, everyone’s got their own thing. And I took those recipes and gave it a little modern twist.”
That twist is Mandel Monster, the side-hustle business Hirsch officially launched in the fall of 2023. With a cottage license, Hirsch bakes the bread at home and sells it, doing pop-ups, going to farmer’s markets, and otherwise spreading the word that mandel bread is pretty great.
His creative change is to lean into mandel bread as a softer cookie, baking it with more gooeyness on the inside, rather than keeping to its traditionally drier state.
That’s the pitch Hirsch makes when explaining his mandel bread, like during a pop up at the Mall of America Lululemon store. “Looks like biscotti but it tastes like cookies,” he told people. “Do you like cookies? Here you go.”
Starting Mandel Monster was a long-developing idea. As the world opened up after 2020, Hirsch brought his mandel bread to birthday parties, potlucks, and work events – and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“What I really liked about it, at that point, was that I was starting to share it with people that didn’t know what it was,” Hirsch said. “It became the moment for me to say, ‘I feel like I have this passion. And I think it’s part of me, it’s what I want to do, to help share the tradition that otherwise may not get shared.’”
What pushed Hirsch over the edge to launching Mandel Monster was feeling like he needed a creative outlet outside of work. So why not start a business? In some ways, he learned, easier said than done.
“I thought that it would be, start an Instagram [page], send in your LLC paperwork, and then all of a sudden it’s, oh, you gotta collect payment, you have to keep up with your Instagram, you have to explain what it is – it’s not going to sell itself,” Hirsch said.
Still, the business has been a surprising success, especially as he launched in time for the winter holidays.
“What I thought would just be a loaf of mandel bread here and there on the weekends became a text message of, ‘Hey, can you make it Wednesday night?’” Hirsch said. “It got really busy at the end of the year. And I have to say it’s kind of a nice little quiet in January as everyone’s in their 2024 resolutions and diets – but February, we’ve got a lot in store.”
Mandel Monster is also a sponsor for Minnesota Hillel’s Feb. 16 Shabbat @ Home program, where Hillel gives out Shabbat hosting kits for students to organize their own Friday night gatherings. This time, they’ll also get some of Hirsch’s mandel bread as a treat.
“This is just one of the examples of being able to spread [mandel bread] into the community and get the name out there…what better way than to get your name out in a cookie,” he said.
Creativity comes in all forms for Hirsch: One of the most popular mandel breads he makes has craisins and white chocolate in them, and – noticing that a loaf of mandel bread looks a little like a football before it is cut into pieces – Hirsch sees an opening to market mandel bread to Super Bowl celebrations.
Meanwhile, his family is also getting a kick out of the business. Hirch’s 89-year-old grandmother is especially invested.
“She’s like, ‘how did the Lululemon pop up go?’” Hirsch said. He replied that it went well and told her how he priced the mandel bread. “‘Way too low, that’s too low,’ [she argued]. So it’s fun, giving her some joy in her day and talking about it.”