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Winnipeg’s historic Jewish bakery gets new top Gunn

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The exterior sign for Gunn's Bakery in Winnipeg

Ever since he was the size of a challah, Arthur (Fivie) Gunn has been selling them.

His parents, Morris and Florence Gunn, a pair of enterprising Polish immigrants, opened the family’s namesake, Gunn’s Bakery, in 1937, on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, in the heart of the city’s vibrant Jewish community.

Gunn – along with his siblings, Bernie and Betty – were integral parts of the business growing up, manning the counter and learning the old-country secrets that made the kosher bagels, strudels and poppyseed rolls taste just right. Not much has changed since then, aside from some renovations.

“Since I was born, this bakery has been my life,” says Gunn, 76, who’s run the business with Bernie Gunn since their father’s death in 1973.

But last year, the brothers decided to sell the bakery and, for the first time since the shop opened its doors, no relative was willing to run it. “We didn’t know what to do,” Gunn added.

That’s when we came across Jon Hochman. For several years, Hochman had been eking out a living in the food service industry. He started working in the kitchen at BB Camp as a teen, then jumped from kitchen to kitchen. A Dairy Queen manager told him he didn’t have what it takes, but he then got a job washing dishes at a local breakfast and brunch spot. Within nine months, he was the kitchen manager.

Next, he went to Red River College, to study the culinary arts, and by his early 20s, he became the head chef at a fine-dining restaurant. After leaving that gig, he tried running his own restaurants.

First came Fitzroy, an eclectic restaurant that didn’t last long. “The food was there, the rest of the operation wasn’t,” he says. But when he changed the menu to reflect his Jewish roots – serving dishes like potato kugel and classic deli sandwiches – something clicked. He shut down Fitzroy and reimagined it as the Sherbrook Street Deli, where he went all in on the eastern European flavours he’d come to love.

When the deli closed, Hochman was eager to get back into the game and the Gunns were more than willing to provide him with the opportunity. Earlier this year, Hochman was officially tasked with taking over the bakery.

“I remember (coming here as a kid) and not being able to see over the counter,” recalls Hochman during a momentary lull at the bakery. “It’s an absolute privilege and an honour to work here.”

There’s a lot of pressure when starting any new job, but taking the reins of a Winnipeg institution is an entirely different story, says Hochman. For months, Gunn – whose grandchildren work at the bakery – has been showing his protege the ropes.

To Gunn, it’s second nature, and every detail is vital to both he and Hochman, who want to make sure the transition of ownership is as seamless as can be.

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The bakery is the last vestige of the Selkirk Avenue of Gunn’s youth, when nearly every business was either Jewish-owned or catered to a largely Jewish clientele (think north Bathurst Street in Toronto). Over 80-plus years, the neighbourhood’s demographics have shifted, with most of Winnipeg’s jewry migrating south. But, as Gunn has long known and as Hochman quickly found out, the bakery is beloved by the city at large, not just by members of the tribe.

“This place is important to Winnipeg,” Hochman says. “It’s something special that I want to carry on.”

Hochman has no plans to change the bakery’s recipes and never considered changing its name, but is looking for ways to help keep the business relevant. He’s also hoping to familiarize himself with the clients, seemingly all of whom Gunn knows by name.

“Are you still here?” jokes one customer from across the counter.

“I’m sticking around for a little while,” Gunn responds with a smile.

With Hochman at the helm, though, he’s confident he’ll be leaving his parents’ business in capable, flour-covered hands for years to come.