TORONTO — Richman’s Kosher Bakery closed last week after almost 50 years at its present location, a victim of rising costs and increased competition.
“You’ve caught me on a very retrospective day,” owner Jonah Libman said Dec. 9, two days after he shut his store at Bathurst Street and York Downs Drive, north of Wilson Avenue, for the last time.
He told an all-too familiar story about the problems of the modern baking business – costs go up, big-box competitors move in, loyalties shift and, possibly, the community loses faith that an old-fashioned family business can keep up with changing times.
“I’m the first one to go,” Libman said, adding that he believes he won’t be the last, as pressures mount. “I am the beginning of the end… the small shops cannot survive.”
Libman said his baked goods were as high quality as ever. “My product could compete with anybody on the street,” he said. “We had a wonderful Dutch baker, we would make wedding cakes – people couldn’t believe [they] came from Richmans… had I been on Avenue Road, I could charge twice as much.”
Yet in the community’s mind, the bakery couldn’t shake what he describes as its “aura of rye bread and cheese Danish.”
Libman, who earned a degree in molecular genetics, once worked for the federal government in Ottawa, but he couldn’t get away from baking. “My zaide was a baker… it’s in the blood.”
Otherwise, he said, he would never have adapted to the miserable hours and “slave labour” of “this crazy business.”
He was the third owner of Richman’s, which opened in its present location on Bathurst in 1964 to join a community migrating northward. He bought the store in 1990 from cousins of the original owner. He longed to renovate the aging space, but he said his landlord was reluctant to share the cost of leasehold improvements.
Soaring wheat prices – due to large companies taking over smaller players, plus the imperilled status of the Canadian Wheat Board – have also been a constant worry. “I’m paying 60 per cent more now for flour [compared to 1990].”
Yet when he raised prices last May to reflect increases in the cost of flour, eggs and sugar, “people were screaming at me. I had this old man yelling at me.”
Daniel Grodzinski of Grodzinski Bakery said that Richman’s demise is “just another nail in the coffin… How many small high-street shops are around at all anymore? There are no small hardware stores anymore.”
Community loyalty only goes so far, with cheap, factory-made bread shoving fresh, local products aside.
“When I took over this business 21 years ago, we used to do between 60 and 200 dozen dinner rolls on a Saturday night for Sunday simchahs,” Libman said.
Today, most caterers use partially baked products that are made in factories by corporations such as Canada Bread. These so-called “parbaked” goods are mostly baked at the factory, then quickly frozen. After shipping, they need a short time in the oven to emerge hot, crisp and fresh, at half the price Richman’s would need to charge.
As well, at the retail level, consumers can easily find kosher bread and baked goods in supermarkets, including some trucked in over great distances by producers that make them more cheaply than bakers here are able to.
“Why would you pay $12.95 a pound for my cookies when they’re bringing in kosher cookies from Montreal for half that?” Libman asked.
Montreal labour costs are cheap, he said. “I’m paying $16.50 an hour… [Montreal Kosher brand is] paying $8 to $10 an hour.”
But Libman preferred to be a mensch rather than undercut the competition: “I liked to treat my employees like they were part of my family.”
“I’m very, very sorry to see [Richman’s] go,” Grodzinski said. “As much as it’s difficult… because of rising ingredient costs, there’s also a dearth of skilled labour coming into the market. Younger people do not become [bread] bakers. Baking is hard work – it’s a very hard business, physically.”
Although his father and uncle ran Grodzinski bakery together in London, and his first cousin still operates that business, members of the next generation aren’t interested. “From what I can see standing here now, none of my children are going into it.”
For Libman, who also recently lost his father – a loyal supporter who would show up at 5 a.m. to make sure Libman was at work – it’s another sign of the end of an era. At least, he said, “I will leave with my head held high. I treated everybody with respect, and I took care of my staff.”