September 25, 2018

Baker Gets Ready for Holiday Rush

Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz

The minute you walk into the small space that is Bibi’s Bakery on Pico Boulevard, the intimacy conveys a distinct feeling of belonging, thanks to the staff led by owner Dan Messinger.

Entering the bakery, Messinger is calm, because it’s still two weeks before the Rosh Hashanah rush for challahs and cakes. By now, Messinger is used to the community and production pace of the Jewish calendar. He took ownership of Bibi’s eight years ago, right before Hanukkah and immediately went into high-production mode, making hundreds of doughnuts to meet the neighborhood demand. He called it a “trial by fryer.” This is what you get with Messinger, who smiles as he riffs, cracking jokes into a conversation like eggs into a bakery’s industrial mixer.

So how does he prepare for the Rosh Hashanah rush?

“The first thing is to emerge several weeks in advance in denial, and then suddenly realize the holidays have snuck up despite having had plenty of warning,” he quipped.

Every year, he notes what he calls “the big curve of challah consumption.”

“People over-order at the beginning and taper off by the end of holidays,” Messinger said. When the holidays fall over a “three-day yontif” (when a two-day holiday comes right before or right after Shabbat), people “buy a ton the first day because they’re afraid they’re going to run out,” he said. “People do the math: [come in saying], ‘I need 78 challahs, please.’”

Before becoming “Dan the Man,” as his bakery apron announces, Messinger worked in big-brand marketing and video and live event production, but decided he wanted to do something different. He discovered that Bibi’s Warmstone was looking for new ownership, and soon he rebranded it as Bibi’s Bakery.

The local business has earned customers’ loyalty and accolades, including being named to a list of “Best Shakshukas in L.A.” on Yelp, and “15 Soulful Shakshukas to Try Around Los Angeles” by Eater L.A. And for Messinger, being part of a Pico-Robertson business has really “broadened my picture of the Jewish community in L.A.,” he said.

“I interface with all facets, denominations, cultural affiliation and observances, and it’s great to see the big picture,” he said. He also noted that when there’s a life-cycle event, “Jews tend to bring food, and we get to be part of that.”

Atop the baskets of fresh pita and challah rolls is a sign that reads: “Yes, these were baked TODAY!! (Now you don’t have to ask!).” Walls are decorated with vintage Israeli posters; Israeli brands fill the beverage case, and several flavors of frosty “ice-caffe” swirl in their commercial slush machines.

“A lot of Israelis come here and it feels like home,” Messinger said. “My drink selection rivals any makolet (market) in Israel.”

Because Rosh Hashanah focuses on the concept of having a sweet new year, bakeries also churn out honey cakes and other honey-related specialties. Asked about whether Bibi’s is working on anything for Yom Kippur, Messinger jokes that he’s got a great Yom Kippur cookie: “It’s no fat, zero calories, all guilt.”

“The apple challah is even more desserty than chocolate chip; it’s an indulgent dessert challah. It’s like if an apple pie and a challah met during their seminary year.”
— Dan Messinger

Some of Bibi’s recipes are old family recipes, others were found on the internet and in cookbooks. “One of the downsides of not coming from the baking industry was that I didn’t have 30 years of experience shadowing a Hungarian baker,” Messinger said. “Often I wish I had access to one of the old-school Jewish bakers and paid my dues. Instead I got to learn by looking online and watching videos on YouTube.”

After Messinger bought the bakery, he learned a bit of previously untold family lore. “As it turns out, my great-grandfather was a baker,” he said. “He was famous for his rye bread in one of the Philadelphia bakeries.”

There are many family elements to running a local bakery, from passionate repeat customers to building community relationships that often translate to catering orders. Messinger makes the Rosh Hashanah cakes himself — an estimated 150 of them over the course of two days, using his grandmother’s honey cake recipe (which may be his great-aunt’s but they also call it his mother’s recipe because it was from her side of the family), and an apple cake recipe he found online but turned out to belong to the sister of a Bibi’s customer who lives around the corner. And his best taste testers are his sons, Max, who his father described as a “12-year-old foodie,” and Isaac, 9, who “loves to work here. He figured out the register, so you might have a cute 9-year-old taking your order.”

When it comes to the Rosh Hashanah rush, all stores selling holiday meal items experience congestion that can test the patience of customers. “Everyone wants challah at the same time,” Messinger said. “There’s a line at the bakery and the butcher. All the customers are doing the same thing. Hopefully people are patient. We try to be nice.”

Messinger tries to encourage advance orders, especially if they’re hoping to get something special like last year’s popular apple challah, but knows many will just take their chances as walk-ins. The apple challah, Messinger said, is “even more desserty than chocolate chip; it’s an indulgent dessert challah. It’s like if an apple pie and a challah met during their seminary year,” he said with a wink.

Thanks to the hard-working staff that starts baking early in the morning, Bibi’s will have round challahs from a few days before Rosh Hashanah through the end of Simchat Torah. Messinger estimates the holiday will require about 300-350 challahs, plus rolls and specialty challahs. And because he knows “people want their challah baked 10-12 minutes before Yom Tov,” he’s also started to offer frozen pre-shaped loaves during the High Holy Days season, acknowledging that “the smell of challah baking in the house is pretty good.” (Year-round, he also offers bags of dough for about $5 that make two challahs.)

People are very emotional about their food, Messinger said, especially their baked goods, because of their own food memories and family connections.

“People ask, ‘Are your rugelach as good as the ones in Israel?’ I answer that our rugelach are great, but it’s not going to be like it was when you were 17 and discovered them with your best friend. Like your grandmother’s brisket is about the family. It’s about the context,” he said. “But we make really good food and hopefully it will become part of people’s tradition.”