Culture  Challah with chutzpah

Trek into the high north past St. Viateur to find the best of Jewish baking

From the Outremont metro stop down through the historic Mile End neighbourhood, the Hasidic community has imparted a distinct cultural flavour – a flavour exemplified by one of the most deep-seated Jewish institution: the bakery.

Jewish bakeries have a certain nostalgic flare. Unadorned, yet inviting, they call to you with the unassuming, unpretentious, and enticing taglines of old-style quality.  Even if it’s your first time, you’ll delight in walking in and seeing all the “old favourites” – rugelach, onion rolls, challah, black and white cookies, kugel, knishes, and (of course) bagels.

Despite their strong ties to Montreal’s Jewish population, Jewish-owned bakeries nonetheless appeal to an increasingly diverse clientele. Daniel Klein, owner and operator of Kosher Quality Bakery, Ltd., said, “Put it this way, Jewish baking is different from non-Jewish baking. First of all…kosher baking, we don’t use milk in our products.  So some people [who] are allergic to milk, will only buy kosher. Some people, like Muslims, who don’t eat pork, then they’ll buy kosher as opposed to not kosher.”

Nor is he alone in attracting an often non-Jewish clientele. Kevin Hart, director of operations at Homemade Kosher Bakery, noted that, “Our selling point is that you get the best of both worlds: we can sell to a Jew or a non-Jew.”

Yet what explains the interest in kosher baking among those who do not adhere to kashrut? A walk through the Kosher Quality’s adjoining deli, as Klein revealed, holds much of the answer. Picking up household names like Clover Leaf tuna, French’s mustard, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, he said, “If you look around today, almost everything…has a kosher sign [on the packaging]. It just goes to show you that people [are] realizing that kosher is not to be thrown around, it’s a market. It’s a viable market.”

Though its market presence has clearly expanded, Jewish baking still plays a pivotal role in Montreal’s Jewish culture. Both Hart and Klein attested that business spikes substantially when Friday rolls around and preparations for Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath – begin. Jewish families come looking for traditional Shabbat foods, like challah, gefilte fish, and kugel. And, Klein added, “They all know me. I mean, Kosher Quality has been around for at least forty years, so people know.”

In many ways, however, the nature of kosher baking has changed to accommodate the mechanization and industrialization of the food industry in general. As stores like Provigo, Walmart, and Target wage war for ever-cheaper food prices, smaller stores – of which Jewish bakeries are but one example – are forced to adapt. If they want to retain their market presence, they have to carve out a more distinct niche than their superstore counterparts.

The spread of chain grocery stores has actually been a boon to businesses such as Hart’s, which encompasses more than just retail. By selling his products on supermarket shelves, he said, “The chains have helped with exposure.” Of course this necessitates a somewhat different economic model, namely, that of a commercial bakery. Indeed, chain stores aside, institutional vendors (including hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and even McGill) comprise much of the rest of Homemade Kosher’s business.

With far fewer than Homemade Kosher’s 75 employees, it’s plain that Kosher Quality takes a different approach. “I can’t compete with Provigo,” said Klein, “they have good prices…they have a bigger market share; they can do it. Second of all, people they buy [at the supermarkets] the fruits, and vegetables which I can’t carry; I have no space for it. Besides that, they have loss leaders: so, some things they’re giving away for cheap cheap cheap – dirt cheap…I can’t compete in that. So, I have my niche, and people can find here almost everything, but not everything.”

Klein’s more retail-oriented business model may afford more of a human element in its food preparation, but it too bears witness to the mechanization of food in Canada today. Though he produces approximately 35 per cent of his total inventory of baked goods on  his premises, market conditions don’t allow for much more. “Today, it’s too labour-intensive for that,” says Klein, who buys much of his stock from elsewhere. “It’s the larger wholesalers. If I sell for two dollars a loaf of bread, and they all sell for a dollar fifty… to make it myself, it just doesn’t pay. Those days are gone.”

It’s all a function of trying to stay alive in a fast-paced society. Stalwarts of an age gone by, these bakeries nonetheless continue the traditions of Jewish baking into the modern day, and against all odds have succeeded in staying relevant.

Drop into Homemade Kosher Bakery at 6915 Querbes. Find Kosher Quality Bakery at 5855 Victoria.