BY CHERYL SLAVIN
The first thing a visitor notices outside of 151 Wells Avenue in Congers is the perfume of peppermint, gently permeating the clear September air. This is the home of Star Kay White, Rockland County manufacturer of world-renowned extracts and flavorings. But more than that, the building houses a family owned and operated business now in its fifth generation, an immigrant success story as timeless and American as chocolate ice cream.
Although it is now a Rockland fixture primarily supplying large ice cream manufacturers with its distinctive extracts and flavorings, Star Kay White began much more humbly. German immigrant and flavor chemist David Katzenstein, together with his brother Sam, started the “Star Extract Corporation” in 1890 at the triangular corner of West Broadway, Greenwich Street and Fulton Streets in New York City. They made their first sale on Valentine’s Day; small beverage companies and ice cream makers sent purchase orders on penny postcards.
By 1928, after expanding into confections as well, the company moved to the Bronx to accommodate the consolidated businesses. Barely surviving the Great Depression, the now renamed Star Kay White began to thrive as David’s sons Miles and Carl came on board. Miles especially demonstrated an aptitude for flavor chemistry; the company used many of his flavor inventions and processing designs for decades. In 1950, when the country experienced a recession, Miles’ son, Walter, started working for the family business.
“My Dad asked me to join,” Walter explains. “At that time, we couldn’t afford to hire anyone else. And it was time for me to settle down.” Now 84, Walter has recently marked his 64th year in the business. He remembers quite well when the company moved to Rockland County in 1984. “We doubled in size from 15,000 square feet in the Bronx to 30,000 in Congers,” he says. “We needed more space and it was time to get out of the Bronx.”
Today, Walter’s sons, Ben and Jim, and Ben’s sons, Gabe and Alex, all work for the company. “We all multi-task,” says Alex, but there are some designations. Gabe’s strength is in research and development of new flavors and recipes. Jim takes particular interest in supervising shipping. “I love to slap the American flag on stuff going overseas,” he says proudly. Jim also spearheads Star Kay White’s commitment to being a green company. The factory recycles about 90 percent of its cardboard, 95 percent of its HDPEZ and also sells its “FOGs”—fats, oils and grease.
Ben is executive vice president, but he is also the unofficial keeper of the family archives and company artifacts. In fact, the interior of the administrative offices looks like a well-stocked museum. Ben lovingly guides a visitor through the collections: Great-grandfather David’s original copper measuring cups displayed in a glass case; shelves of hundred year old manufacturing implements; the company’s original ledgers recording every transaction from day one; framed family photographs, purchase orders, original advertisements and business cards.
“The business has grown so much,” he says, “that we’ve expanded three times since coming to Rockland County. My great-grandfather would have been astonished. Today we employ over 110 employees in four buildings totaling more than 100,000 square feet. We produce up to three quarters of a million pounds of product a week!”
And what products they are! A tour of the factory unveils a confectionary lover’s dream. Here are the extracts—vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, peppermint, almond, to name a few—and the flavorings, such as chocolate chip cookie dough and mocha, distributed to ice cream and candy manufacturers around the world. “We are especially known for our marshmallow,” Jim adds.
In one room a vat produces chocolate cookie crunch that won’t get soggy in ice cream, and in another, huge combines churn almonds in chocolate. The aroma is heavenly. “Chocolate is probably our most internationally known product,” Gabe points out. And finally, the tour reveals the source of the scent wafting outside the building—boiling vats of liquid peppermint and conveyor belts full of the hardened pink candy pouring into plastic shipping tubs.
Most of Star Kay White’s business is commercial, but the company also produces a line of 12 extracts for retail sale. The extracts can be found at such places as Whole Foods and Chef Central, but they can also be bought through Amazon.com. Interested purchasers can survey the full array of products on the company’s website, Starkaywhite.com, which also contains a link to Amazon. The website also offers a number of innovative recipes using the extracts.
So far four successive generations of Katzensteins have made the commitment to continue what David started 123 years ago. The reasons for doing so might have been steeped in tradition and familial bonds, but the benefits extend well beyond the personal. Not only do ice cream and chocolate lovers everywhere reap the benefit of well made quality products, but Rockland County also profits from the presence of a long term, stable, economically thriving commercial resident. David undoubtedly would have been proud to know how far his immigrant dream has come. And from the way things are going, it looks like it will continue that way for a long time.