Can a Toy Builder Make Mensch on a Bench a Holiday Tradition?

Neal Hoffman takes on Elf on a Shelf with Jewish-themed dolls.
Photographer: Caroline Tompkins for Bloomberg Businessweek

Neal Hoffman thought he’d hit the jackpot in December 2014 when he appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and persuaded two of the show’s celebrity investors to buy $75,000 stakes in the Mensch on a Bench, a Jewish riff on the popular Christmas franchise Elf on the Shelf.

Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs vie to get their ideas on the hit show every year, hoping the exposure will supercharge their businesses. That’s exactly what it did for Hoffman as sales of his bearded Hanukkah dolls surged ninefold, to $900,000. The Cincinnati-based businessman was elated, but that feeling soon turned to fear that he might become a one-hit wonder like other contestants. (Remember ShowNo Towels and Toygaroo?) “You get the initial press bump, then after a few years it goes away,” says the 39-year-old. “The challenge was, how do you turn this from a product into a brand?”

Mensch was successful because it brought much-needed novelty to the Hanukkah aisles at big-box retailers that were filled with run-of-the-mill candles and dreidels, Hoffman says. Plus, mixing Christmas and Hanukkah was becoming less taboo for interfaith families like his own—Hoffman is Jewish, and his wife is Christian—as evidenced by the emergence of products like Hanukkah gingerbread houses and menorah trees.

Hoffman’s journey from toy industry executive—he worked at Hasbro for six years—to small-business owner began four years ago with a holiday shopping trip to a Nordstrom department store, where his son spied an Elf on the Shelf and asked for it. The brainchild of a mother and her two daughters, Elf on the Shelf made his debut a decade ago and has since become a Christmas staple. The doll comes with a book that tells the story of one of Santa’s helpers, whose job is to report on whether kids are being naughty or nice. Parents move the elf to a new location each night, so children must hunt anew for it each morning. Hoffman nixed the purchase but jokingly told his son “you can do a mensch on a bench, you’re Jewish.”

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Hoffman realized he was onto something. He filed a trademark and spent $300 to get a logo and sketch made. He came up with a story in which the Mensch watches over the menorah and has to be moved each night or else he gets sore. A Kickstarter campaign in March 2013 raised $22,000. He put in an additional $10,000 to get the first 1,000 dolls made in China. Meanwhile he drew on his marketing experience to generate publicity. A post about Mensch on a Facebook page dedicated to Hoffman’s hometown of Marblehead, Mass., led to a profile on a local Boston television station. It snowballed from there, with the Mensch eventually making an appearance on the Today show. “I just hustled,” he says. “I went out there and told the story as many times as I could.”

Hoffman had the idea that Mensch could become a Jewish brand, like Manischewitz, a line of kosher wine and food products sold around the world. So he introduced wrapping paper, menorahs, and a chocolate candy bar called Mensch Munch. “Now you could have the Mensch be the center point and have a bunch of different ways to celebrate,” he says. Despite those additions, sales fell about 10 percent in 2015. Also, amid the Shark Tank frenzy he overestimated demand and was stuck with too many Mensch dolls.

This year he’s introducing new characters. There’s Hannah the Hanukkah Hero, a $30 doll that comes with a book that tells the story of how she overcomes sexism to fight with her fellow Maccabees against the Greeks. And there’s Ask Bubbe, a grandma that utters phrases such as “Don’t do that, I’ll plotz!” (The voice is that of Hoffman’s Aunt Sue.) Bubbe has been a hit at chains like Michaels and Target, according to Hoffman, and will help his company, Monkeybar Consulting, reach $1 million in sales next year, up from a projected $800,000 in 2016.

Turning a novelty item into an enduring brand requires constant reinvention; otherwise things quickly go stale, says Jim Silver, editor of the toy review site TTPM.com, who thinks Hoffman is taking the right approach in adding characters and stories. “There are a lot of places you can take Mensch,” Silver says. Shark Tank investors Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, who own a combined 15 percent of the company, credit Hoffman’s inventiveness and drive. “Good enough is never good enough for Neal,” Herjavec said in an e-mail.

Hoffman has gotten this far without any full-time employees. Right before being interviewed for this story, he was packing boxes in his basement. About 10 percent of orders are fulfilled from his house, and the rest are handled by Amazon.com and other retailers. Hoffman is also in charge of product development, accounting, and customer service—the telephone number that appears on the brand’s website is his own. “I like having this control, and I understand that limits the size of what I can do,” he says. “But I’m OK with that.”

The bottom line: Neal Hoffman has developed a line of Jewish-themed toys that appeal to interfaith families like his own.

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