Grand Bakery, the beloved Oakland institution that served kosher baked goods for nearly 60 years in the Grand Lake neighborhood, closed late last year when its former owner, Bob Jaffe, retired. Now, it’s got a new life, and a new owner: Sam Tobis, a 27 year old UC Berkeley grad. While Tobis won’t be re-opening the physical storefront immediately, due to rent increases and required renovations, he has every intention of bringing the spirit of the brand back to life.
After a few months preparing, he’s officially launched the next era of Grand Bakery as a fully wholesale operation, distributing customer favorites around the Bay Area. And he has set a lofty goal: to further the bakery’s engagement with the Jewish community, while at the same time, spreading the love for kosher baked goods to those who may think it’s off limits for them. “Jewish food is under-enjoyed and underappreciated in mass,” says Tobis.
How a bakery becomes a classic
When Jaffe closed Grand Bakery on December 23, 2016, the day before Chanukah, members of the Grand Lake neighborhood and Jewish communities were vocally disappointed to see such a rare gem shutter. Known for its old-school vibe and friendly service, Grand Bakery had been one of the few fully kosher shops served traditional Jewish baked goods in the Bay Area, and the sole option in the East Bay.
Jaffe says his goal had always been to sell off the bakery if he found the right buyer, passing on what had once been handed down to him. In fact, the store has been passed through many hands, first opened in 1962 by Ernest "Ernie" Hollander, a Holocaust survivor who passed away in 2002, under the name the New Yorker Bakery. During the war, the teenaged Hollander was placed in various labor camps including Auschwitz, where he escaped but lost nearly all of his family. Hollander and his wife Anna migrated to New York in 1950, and then to Oakland in the early 60s.
Over the years, the shop went through many iterations, including a stint as Ernie’s Strudel Palace in the 1970s. In 1998, Jaffe bought the store from Gene LeVee, who gave it its modern-day name, and focused on cultivating a community feel. “It was like the show ‘Cheers,’ in there,” Jaffe, a New Jersey native, told Eater. “Everyone knew your name. People were always hugging and greeting each other and catching up. It was a real gathering spot.”
Tobis’ path toward owning the bakery started with a serendipitous moment on New Year’s Eve. At a concert at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, Tobis spotted Jaffe on the dance floor and recognized him from the bakery in his neighborhood. The next morning, Tobis, who always had a fascination with food service, wondered aloud to his girlfriend whether she thought Jaffe would let him apprentice there and maybe even sell him the bakery when he was someday ready to retire.
Impulsively, he gave Jaffe a call. “I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet; it was the first action of the year,” Tobis says. Jaffe’s voicemail: “‘Hey now. ‘If you haven't heard, I retired as of December 23. I'm actively seeking buyers to keep my mission and spirit alive.’"
Out of several prospective buyers, Jaffe chose to turn over his keys to Tobis, a young Jew from New York, for several reasons, including that he promised to keep the bakery kosher and his youth equipped him well for the grueling overnight hours. But Jaffe also related to Tobis on a certain level. “Sam is a good guy, and I see a lot of myself in Sam,” Jaffe said. “I was always more of a businessman than a baker, and I think he sees himself the same way. I never thought I would have ended up there, but it was the perfect thing for me—serving the community, making people smile.”
The changing of the guard
After graduating from UC-Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric, the Manhattan native got his first taste of a commercial kitchen as a line cook at Berkeley’s Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen; later, he worked in education consulting and community engagement.
Throughout these jobs, he maintained a fascination with food service, especially ways restaurants have adapted to new economic realities to be profitable. That new-age approach plays into his decision to kick off Grand Bakery’s next era by focusing on wholesale before potentially opening a storefront down the line; when he took a look at the finances of the bakery, he discovered nearly 60 percent of profits were already coming from wholesale.
“It was sad to leave the old space, but the way I see it is, we had to adapt to survive,” Tobis said. “Food service has always been a tough industry, but a lot of the traditional variables are changing.”
With the sale, Tobis essentially retained the Grand Bakery brand and access to equipment, recipes, and time with Jaffe to learn the business. All baking operations are now taking place at the Food Mill, the historic East Oakland natural foods store that rents out kitchen space and serves as an incubator of sorts. One of Tobis’ first moves was to hire back two of Jaffe’s former bakers, Jose Mata and Epifanio Garcia, who have been baking there for 19 years.
The operation has been back up and running under the radar for the past couple of months, selling to a variety of previous clients like Mollie Stone's in Palo Alto, Piedmont Grocery in Oakland, and Berkeley Bowl, in addition to Jewish facilities like the Marin JCC Preschool, The Schneerson Center, and Berkeley Hillel. Eventually, after getting more momentum, Tobis would love to open a retail store to return a more personal experience to the community.
Paramount to Tobis and Jaffe, Grand Bakery will remain fully kosher, certified by Sunrise Kosher, one of the more strict supervising organizations. “I’m more of a live-and-let-live kind of Jew,” Tobis says. “If you want to keep kosher great; if not, great. I personally don’t keep kosher in my life, but Grand Bakery is kosher and we exist to serve both the kosher community and non-kosher alike.”
In addition to using kosher ingredients, equipment, and processes, the bakery goes a step further to meet the most conservative of criteria by kashering the oven: “Because we’re sharing the oven, any time someone else uses it, we need to say a prayer and sacrifice a portion of the challah by heating the oven to 500 degrees for one hour to burn off any impurities.”
Indeed, challah is the star at Grand Bakery. The fluffy, chewy, slightly sweet braided bread is a staple of Shabbat, observed weekly from sunset on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday evening. Other favorites items Tobis is keeping on the menu: chocolate-dipped macaroons, Russian tea cookies, almond logs, and hamantashen (jelly-filled shortbread cookies).
Because Tobis believes non-Jews often see kosher food as off limits, he wants to help spread the word about how delicious Jewish food, and desserts, are. In the era where consumers are looking for signs that food has a certain level of quality—from certified organic to certified GMO-free—he thinks certified kosher has the potential to rise to the forefront.
“Kosher is, in a way, the oldest certification,” Tobis says. “Ultimately, I think people just want to trust where their food is coming from. They want to know that there are quality ingredients and that we’re putting care into the food.”
In addition to cultivating more mainstream appeal, Tobis says he understands the important role that the bakery serves for the Jewish community in an area where it can be hard to find kosher food. “To my mind, what makes us kosher goes beyond the food,” he says. “It’s almost like a kosher ethic, in terms of how we treat our customers, how we treat our employees, how we treat people in need, and how we are there for the community.”
Beginning September 14, Grand Bakery’s goods will be available for order and pick up at The Food Mill (3033 MacArthur Blvd.), just in time for Rosh Hashanah.