hardly strictly bagels | Grand Bakery has made quite a mark in its 15 yearsby andy altman-ohr
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A few months ago, Bob Jaffe reached an impressive milestone: 15 years as the owner of the Grand Bakery in Oakland.
With its weathered floors, homey atmosphere and awesome new high-capacity oven, Grand Bakery is an institution on many levels — from being able to make such a long go of it as a fully kosher establishment to its Grateful Dead posters to the way it blankets the local Jewish community.
I doubt if any one person or business in the Bay Area has had a wider connection to so many disparate parts of the community over the last decade and a half. In the front window of the shop is a sheet that reads, “Grand Bakery is proud to be a recent supporter of these fine organizations.” It lists about 50 worship groups, nonprofits and annual events, most of them Jewish, from Reform to Orthodox and everywhere in between and beyond.
Grand Bakery is iconic. Its products are in dozens of stores around the Bay Area, from Mollie Stone’s and Andronico’s to a handful of corner markets in Oakland. It makes “tens of thousands of macaroons for Passover,” Jaffe says, “same as it is with hamantaschen at Purim and sufganiyot at Hanukkah.” If you’ve been to a menorah lighting event anywhere around the Bay Area, chances are you’ve bitten into a Grand Bakery jelly doughnut.
But it’s also a place you can walk into and order a latke, a cup of matzah ball soup and an egg salad sandwich for lunch — and sit down at one of the two tables and eat it. You’ll be in far from luxurious surroundings — refrigeration cases and trays of baked goods over your shoulder, a mezuzah affixed to the doorpost with packaging tape, fliers and pamphlets strewn here and there, various chazerai on the walls — but that’s part of the charm, especially when the place is buzzing with customers and 95 percent of them want to chat with Jaffe, the staff and/or one another.
Grand Bakery makes five kinds of borekas, and its own hummus and baba ghanoush. It also boils and bakes its own bagels, about two or three dozen per day. Many people do not know that. And while you can buy a Grand Bakery challah in the supermarket, you’ve got to go to the shop to find specialty items like mini-challahs, honey rolls, wheat bread, pumpernickel, baguettes and marble rye. Yes, marble rye!
The history of the bakery dates back to 1961, when Ernie and Anna Hollander opened the New Yorker Bakery. Sold to Ernie Feld in the mid-’60s, it became Ernie’s Strudel Palace (and was no longer kosher). The very Jewish Gene LeVee bought the place in 1985, turned it back into a kosher operation and renamed it for the street it was on, Grand Avenue.
Jaffe and a partner, Moti Dagan, made the purchase in November 1998, and then Jaffe bought out Dagan in 2002.
The rest, as they say, is history. Now the bakery is pumping out more than 120,000 macaroons and 35,000 challahs a year, sometimes selling as many as 500 challahs on one Friday alone. For a typical Hanukkah, about 20,000 sufganiyot come out of the oven, as various Chabads sometimes order 300 or 400 at one time. For a recent AIPAC dinner, Jaffe got an order for more than 400 dinner rolls.
Jaffe, 53, is a complex character: dedicated, energetic, smart and offbeat, and embracing yet irascible.
One minute he’ll be going on about how his shop is friendly and warm, like the bar on “Cheers.” Or how a Jewish agency will call him a day or two ahead of time with an impossibly huge and tardy order, and how he just can’t say no. And the next he’ll be railing against: A, a local kosher certification agency for kashering an exhibit hall’s kitchen for some big Jewish event, and B, the Jewish agency that denied him the business by opting to have the kashering done.
He’s even chided me for giving so many column inches to all the new bagel makers and Jewish eateries that I write about. “Whoever the new guy on the block is,” he says with disdain.
“Oh, they’re coming at it with a high-tech sensibility or some other niche,” Jaffe continues. “That’s great when you’re a pop-up or just getting going, but then you find out it’s every day, day after day, year after year, and you’ve got overhead, and your employee doing deliveries calls in sick and now you’ve got to deliver. And you’re charging $3 a bagel, but how are you going to clear $150,000, or even $80,000? It was nice as a romance.”
Jaffe had similar startup dreams once, with the black-and-white cookie. He wanted to open a place near Jack London Square called Zayde Desserts, and the black-and-white was going to be his signature item. But the cookies were fragile, and cracked while on the racks at local cafes, and the owners wanted him to cover the cost. There were other problems, too mundane to get into.
Anyway, his bakery still makes the black-and-white, along with tons of other cookies, cobblers, pies and meringues. Jaffe serves as cake decorator, but his 15-person staff does most of the baking and counter work.
And Jaffe frantically and efficiently keeps it all rolling, working like a dog — 15- and 16-hour days (and more) before big Jewish holidays, no extended time off except when he shuts down during Passover, and only 11⁄2 days off for illness, he claims, in 15 years. “Sleep?” he says. “It’s overrated.”
He’s had only one cup of coffee in his life. And that was just last year. And it was an Irish coffee. “Look how I am,” he says. And, yes, he was bouncing around the shop — on a day it was closed! — tending to his big dog, Rocky, dealing with people trying to come into the shop even though it was closed, doing three or four other things at once. “You don’t want to see me on caffeine.”
He’s got thousands of stories, from meeting Jerry Seinfeld’s dad to having seen more than 300 Grateful Dead shows and hundreds of other concerts; from how Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes loves Grand Bakery’s chocolate-dipped macaroons to how he took a box of them, on his own volition, to star singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm at a benefit show in Lafayette recently; from how he lives in the funky unincorporated community of Canyon in the East Bay Hills to how his bakery just started accepting credit cards about a year ago.
“I’ve evolved into that, I guess,” he notes, sounding somewhat defeated, but that’s where it stops. Grand Bakery has no Facebook page, no Twitter account … not even a website.
But it does have “A Very Jerry Christmas” poster in the window (Jerry Garcia, of course). And a “CH♥LLAH” license plate on the wall. And there’s Jaffe refusing to take $40 from a customer trying to pay him for a pie order, in the end accepting $20. And there he is giving me one of his self-made “We are everywhere” stickers (open to interpretation) that he hands out everywhere.
Fifteen years of all of this mishegas and deliciousness and community. Thanks, Grand Bakery. Thanks, Bob.
3264 Grand Ave., Oakland
7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed on Shabbat, Jewish holidays, and Mondays.
No website, Facebook or Twitter
FOOD ON FILM: On March 9, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will present a program titled “Hummus, Falafel and Brisket — Oh, My!” Three documentary films will be shown at the JCC of San Francisco.
At 1 p.m., it’ll be “Make Hummus Not War,” a 77-minute journey through the hummus bars and kitchens of Beirut, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and New York. Along the way are encounters with many assorted characters.
At 2:30 p.m., “Meathooked” will look at the rise and fall of butchers and butchering from the early 19th century onward. The 54-minute film profiles several butchers, three of whom are Jewish (although not kosher).
At 3:45 p.m., “Falafel! Give Peas a Chance” will examine the history of falafel, and the political issues around it, from the Holy Land to North America. The 44-minute film is lighthearted, but it also wonders if falafel could be a gateway to peace.
Tickets are $12 per film or $25 for a day pass. For more information, visit http://www.tinyurl.com/nrz9dqo or call (415) 292-1233. Oh, and not to worry: Food will be available for purchase between the screenings.
Hardly Strictly Bagels runs once a month.
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