The East Bay’s only kosher bakery shutters.
‘Twas the night before Hanukkah when all through Grand Bakery not a chef was stirring, not even frying some sufganiyot in a vat full of oil.
That barren image is a big deal for many in the East Bay Jewish community, especially those who keep kosher and know what sufganiyot even are. (In Hebrew, that’s the word for fried jelly donuts, a treat during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights.)
The sleeping deep fryer is because Bob Jaffe, owner of the kosher bakery on Grand Avenue in Oakland, hung up his baker’s hat on Dec. 23, the night before Hanukkah began.
“It’s way hard,” the 56-year-old Jaffe said during the week before closing, still keeping an eye on customers and icing a cake while being interviewed on his tenure at Grand Bakery, the only kosher bakery in the East Bay. “But I’ve worked harder than anyone I know for the last 18 years. And I’d like to look at the back of my eyelids for once.”
Time to get some sleep, read a book, travel, have friends over for dinner, clean out the garage, organize his family photos, play guitar, and do just about anything that doesn’t involve having him show up at the bakery by 7 a.m. and leave sometimes well after 8:30 p.m.
Since Nov. 17, 1998—the day he bought the bakery—Jaffe said he has never taken a sick day, though he has certainly felt under the weather at points over the last two decades.
“This bakery has given me a good life, but it consumes my life,” Jaffe said, noting that the 18 years he has spent running the show and overseeing his 14 employees is symbolic, too: 18 in Hebrew is the numeric equivalent of the word life or “chai.”
The impact will be the greatest on the Orthodox community surrounding the bakery, including those who attend Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland. Those members adhere to strict kosher dietary laws, which means the baked goods need to be supervised by a special overseer who makes sure no impure products get mixed in with the flour and eggs. Jews who keep kosher also don’t mix milk and meat together at the same meals, so the allure of Grand Bakery desserts are that they are nondairy and can be eaten immediately after a steak or turkey dinner. For instance, the pumpkin pies are pareve, meaning they are made without butter, or, in this case, shortening, and are a Thanksgiving mainstay in many kosher households.
Dawn Margolin, who founded the Kindergym at Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue, had asked that all the parents who drop off their toddlers to her playgroup bring challahs, or braided bread, bought from Grand Bakery to share on Fridays for her “Tot Shabbat.”
“I’m really sad that this wonderful institution might not be around for the greater Jewish community,” she said.
Even Tanya Schevitz, who lives in Pacifica and doesn’t keep kosher, was upset to hear the news. “Oh, no!” she said. “That was my go-to place for their black-and-white cookies. Where will I get them now?”
Other grocery stores and other Jewish agencies might be wondering where they will get the famous black-and-white cookies and other kosher baked goods that Grand Bakery sells as well. For years, Jaffe has been selling his goods to places such as Berkeley Bowl, Piedmont Grocery, Mollie Stone’s, Jewish day schools, kosher caterers, synagogues, and Jewish community centers.
Since he made his formal announcement to his staff about a month ago and word has spread, Jaffe said he has been approached by two dozen possible new owners, which he has pared down to “a handful.” He’s looking to sell his beloved business to someone who has business acumen, some capital, and who will vow to keep it kosher, even though Jaffe doesn’t necessarily keep kosher himself. (He’s a vegetarian.) He has been talking to possible investors and those who simply want to run a kosher business. And now that it’s closed, he’s hoping he’ll be able to refurbish and renovate some of the aging infrastructure inside the shop over a couple of months and then find a suitable buyer. “I’m 98 percent sure that will happen,” he said. He’d really like his longtime employees, especially the bakers, to be able to be quickly hired by a new employer as well, he said.
In the meantime, Jaffe is trying to separate himself from a business has consumed his life. But it’s tough.
“It still pains me to think about,” he said. “It’s been my identity. It’s been my sustenance. But it’s time.”