Jewish Journal of Great LA
Seven years ago, Neal Hoffman was shopping with his family when his son asked him for an Elf on a Shelf. “No, we’re Jewish,” Hoffman reminded him. “We don’t celebrate Christmas.” He then joked, “You can have a Mensch on a Bench.”
It was his eureka moment. The former Hasbro executive went home and designed a bearded Jewish figure wearing a tallit, and wrote a storybook to go with it. And from Day One, he planned to take his product to “Shark Tank.”
Hoffman was a huge fan of the ABC show and knew about its annual holiday-themed episode. “My chances were a lot better because I was targeting a very specific niche,” he told the Journal. He passed the audition and pitched to the investors in an episode that aired in December 2012.
“I was terrified,” Hoffman said. “But I was prepared. My job was to convince them that I was a real business before they laughed me off the stage.” His engaging spiel prompted two Sharks to bite. He made a $150,000 deal with Robert Herjavec and Lori Greiner for a 15 percent stake in his company.
“Mensch is about strong family values and bringing families together. [Herjavec and Greiner] are the Sharks with the biggest hearts, and I think they wanted to be part of that,” Hoffman said, noting that their first suggestion was to make the Mensch’s expression friendlier. Now, with their guidance, he has expanded the brand to include Hannah the Hanukkah Hero, Dreidel Dog and Ask Bubbe, a Yiddish take on the Magic 8 Ball. Those three items are sitting out this season, and Bubbe’s counterpart, Ask Papa, and Mitzvah Moose have joined the Mensch in stores.
Hoffman, whose sales were about $100,000 before “Shark Tank,” made almost $1 million in the first year afterward, reaping the benefits of a lot of publicity. He attributes its appeal and success to the fact that Mensch is fun and lovable, and has a message of good deeds and values while also helping to teach kids about Judaism. “I think we were the right product at the right time,” he said. “And I think people like to root for the little guy from the tiny Jewish toy company and want to see it succeed.”
Hoffman is working on new items for the line, and his Sharks continue to advise him. “Robert helps me focus. I have so many ideas for products and I can’t bring them all out at once. He teaches me to pace myself,” Hoffman said. “Lori is a great product person. I only get a few at-bats and none of them can be strikeouts. I have to make sure I’m moving the brand forward every time. Lori has helped me with that. Going on ‘Shark Tank’ was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Of Austrian and Russian heritage, Hoffman grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Marblehead, Mass., “a heavily Jewish area. My mom worked for Hadassah. I went to Hebrew school, worked at a Jewish camp. I have two brothers and of the three of us, I’m the most religious,” he said. “But for me, it’s more about the community than the prayers.” He has been to Israel and is planning to go again in three years for his oldest son’s bar mitzvah.
In 1999, when he met his wife, who is Catholic, he told her, ‘I’m going to raise my kids Jewish and if that’s a deal breaker, let’s not go out on a second date.’ The chain has been going on for 5,800 years and I’m not about to break it,” he said.
Now living in Cincinnati, Hoffman is an active member of Temple Sholom, where he’s on the board, and his sons, Jacob and Alexander, attend Hebrew school. A former trumpet player, he blows the shofar on the High Holy Days and dresses up as the Mensch for Hanukkah.
In 2017, Israel’s largely Jewish-American baseball team adopted the Mensch as its mascot, bringing it to games and press conferences. “It was [team member] Cody Decker’s idea, not a business deal,” Hoffman said. “Just for fun, I sent him a 5-foot Mensch, and he brought it to Japan, Korea, everywhere.” The Mensch made his movie debut in the documentary “Heading Home: The Story of Team Israel.”
That was a highlight for Hoffman, one of many. He was invited twice to Hanukkah celebrations at the Obama White House and threw out the first pitch with Herjavec at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park. “I’ve done way beyond what I imagined in the beginning, and it’s changed my life in the best possible ways,” he said.
“Because of this, I’m living to my potential. I’m living my best life. I run a company that’s based in Jewish values. My mom and my kids are proud of me. I understand I’m not changing the world. I’m making Jewish dolls. But I can get those meaningful Jewish experiences to be a little more meaningful and help create traditions that we can pass down to the kids,” Hoffman said. “It was a labor of love when I started and it was incredibly difficult to get it off the ground. But I’m so thankful. I love what I do. I’m so proud to be the Mensch guy.”
The Mensch on a Bench and related Chanukah characters are generally available at Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond.