August 19, 2011
Turning over a new loaf
It seems right that some of the first challahs to be sold in Stone Ground Baking Company’s beautiful new store will be the round challahs for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It is the start of something new alongside the continuation of something very old, even ancient.
Seven years ago, bakers Abby Franke and Paul Sherman opened Stone Ground bakery in a small, existing bakery about a mile from the new location in Agoura Hills. Their 1960s industrial stone flour mill was set up in a storage closet, and their large European deck oven took up half of the main room’s south wall.
A customer at the counter could feel the heat of the ovens and see the giant mix machines and the worktable where employees shaped the array of artisan breads and pastries by hand. It was crowded, especially as the bakery’s wholesale business grew to supply more than 400 stores, synagogues, caterers and, most recently, school districts interested in whole-grain food for their students — not to mention the high demand for the bakery’s famous challah, which it sells to Trader Joe’s and other chains.
The new location is bright and spacious, a dream of a bakery with hardwood floors and glass walls to keep the heat of the ovens away from the big wooden table, where customers can sit and enjoy a cup of Illy coffee with their rugelach or raspberry tart. The parve products, for which Stone Ground is known in the Jewish community, are displayed on shelves and in cases, but there is also a new kosher dairy section and a new pastry chef. There is a coffee lounge, house-made gelato and sorbet, and even a real wood-fired brick oven to cook the pizza dough they sold raw in the old location.
Franke’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the new place, until he gets to the fact that his late, much-missed business partner, Paul Sherman, will not be there — and then his eyes fill with tears. The connection between the deceased Israeli baker and his German partner was powerful. “Paulito” will always be in his thoughts, Franke said, adding that he feels Sherman is watching over the new operation today.
Franke began baking when he was 14, mastered the skill in his native Germany, and then moved to California, where, among other jobs, he managed production at La Brea Bakery. Sherman, also an immigrant baker, from Tel Aviv, had a West Valley kosher bakery when he and Franke met. The direct, outgoing German and the reportedly shy Israeli successfully combined Franke’s passion for whole-grain ingredients with Sherman’s dedication to holy production (kashrut) until Sherman’s sudden death at age 53, just as the business was beginning to explode. In the old location, a photograph of Sherman presided over the main room, and the same photo is now at the center of the new store.
A new partner, Greg Yulish, has a background in business rather than in baking, and was a loyal customer when he and Franke started discussing a possible partnership about two years ago.
They found a new location, where Franke could expand Stone Ground’s offerings and continue to grow the wholesale business. The store uses state-of-the-art equipment, such as gleaming new rotating ovens, in conjunction with the made-by-hand tradition. All baked goods are still made in the store, and the same attention to ingredients that goes into the super-nutritious breads is given to new items like gelato and caramel apples.
Franke still grinds his own flour, but the gray industrial machine has been replaced with a bright red 1931 mill completely refurbished by its South Carolina manufacturers. Through the glass-enclosed room built for the mill, customers can see the wheat being turned into flour, and eventually they will be able to buy freshly bagged (but properly aged) flour for home baking. (Like many food products, flour is best aged, but American companies in an American hurry have been reluctant to adopt this European standard.)
Stone Ground’s kosher certification comes from a man who understands baking. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom is the son of the baker from whom Sherman bought his first bakery. As a teenager, Feinstein worked at Sherman’s bakery and so, it seemed only fitting that when they needed certification, Sherman and Franke went to Feinstein. He approved the dairy section in the new bakery, too. Franke says anytime the rabbi feels nostalgic, he is invited to come back and work. Franke will be back at the ovens himself in the opening months of the new store, to make sure everything is done the way it should be.
The round challah of Rosh Hashanah symbolizes many things and can be a metaphor for the turning of the world, the way things constantly change but maintain their essence when what is important is preserved — the spirit of a good friend, the traditions of an age-old craft and the customs of an ancient people.
Stone Ground Baking Company, 29105 Canwood Place, Agoura Hills. (818) 597-8774. stonegroundbreads.com.