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.
A rather secular Jaffe entered the picture in the late 1990s, using the shop after hours to work on perfecting a black-and-white cookie so he — more hippie than capitalist — could escape running a wholesale distribution business of sign and screen printing supplies. A native of New Milford, N.J., he had family and friends back East who loved black-and-white cookies, and he thought he could make ’em “the next big thing” out here. Never happened, but he did end up buying the bakery from LeVee, on the stipulation that he keep it kosher.
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 www.tinyurl.com/nrz9dqo or call (415) 292-1233. Oh, and not to worry: Food will be available for purchase between the screenings.
It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about Flavor, a new Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, because the chef was a graduate of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. And because the menu included Israeli food. Now, after only five months in business, Flavor has shut down, and chef Ezra Malmuth is out of a job. Flavor didn’t work well as an order-at-the-counter restaurant in a food-court setting, and the owners decided to junk it and go their separate ways. Malmuth, 25, is doing some consulting (email@example.com) while he ponders his next move … Max’s has a pretty cool “Soup Sampler” lunch promotion going. You get to have cups of two different soups — perfect when I can’t decide between matzah ball soup and something else — plus another item, such as a sandwich on a pretzel bun or a salad. Some of the soups are new (and vegetarian) and one of the sandwich options is mini-Reuben served on a latke … Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat, run by Lex Gopnik-Lewinski of Berkeley, is back after taking a few months off. Pop-ups at Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland are penciled in for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. the last Monday of every month. The meat is brisket served in a succulent style made famous by Schwartz’s deli in Montreal; it is also available in 1-pound packages at Beauty’s … Tablehopper reported recently on the opening of a new food marketplace in the old Red Vic Movie House on Haight Street. The report also noted that next door there will be a co-op bakeshop called Community Craft, and one of the nine local entities will be Beauty’s Bagel Shop … “Beyond Hummus & Pita” — a culinary journey into Israeli cuisine — is slated for 9:30 a.m. March 9 at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos. Tasting is part of the program. For information, visit www.tinyurl.com /beyond-hummus … The JCC of San Francisco is hosting and selling tickets ($95-$115) for “The Downtown Seder” at 7 p.m. April 9. Held in prior years in New York and Chicago, the pre-holiday celebration, which includes a veggie dinner and four glasses of wine, will feature more than 20 artists, politicians, comedians and thinkers offering interpretations of the Passover story. For information, visit www.jccsf.org/arts … Wise Sons at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is now opening at 11 a.m. on Thursdays instead of at 1 p.m. So its hours there are now less confusing: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day … I just stumbled onto this, but about six weeks ago, Saul’s Deli in Berkeley got top billing and good airtime in a KPIX Channel 5 news story about places open on Dec. 25. Check it out at www.tinyurl.com/kpix-sauls … Paulie’s Pickling, an unsung gem of a Jewish-style deli counter at 331 Cortland Ave. in San Francisco, makes great sandwiches, but it all started because of co-owner Paul Ashby’s penchant for pickling. Thanks to a new deal with a distributor, his zesty original and garlic-and-dill pickles now can be found in more than 40 Bay Area stores, including Whole Foods, Bi-Rite, Berkeley Bowl and many smaller places. — andy altman-ohr
Hardly Strictly Bagels runs once a month.
For more frequent Jewish food news, follow Follow @andytheohr on Twitter.
Send hot tips and out-of-the-way finds to Andy Altman-Ohr at firstname.lastname@example.org.