(New York Jewish Week) — In a city where love of babka borders on a religion, Adir Michaeli, founder of Michaeli Bakery, is the (you’ll pardon the expression) high priest of the confection.
You may not know his name, but if you love good babka, you probably know his product. Michaeli, 39, was once the pastry department manager and head pastry chef of Lechamim Bakery in Tel Aviv; there, Michaeli told the New York Jewish Week, he spent two years perfecting the babka recipe. When Lechamim founder Uri Scheft wanted to expand to the United States, he tapped Michaeli to help open Lechamim’s American cousin, Breads Bakery, in New York. Since opening in 2013, Breads has since become the gold standard for babka in New York.
After three years with Breads — which has since expanded to five locations in the city — Michaeli left the company to start his own business, which he said was a dream of his. Now, after a fitful start due to COVID, Michaeli Bakery has developed its own devoted following at two locations in Manhattan.
“People love these pastries,” said Michaeli, referring to New Yorkers’ embrace of the babka, rugelach and bourekas for which Breads, and now Michaeli, has become known.
Of course, it’s not like New Yorkers were suffering from a lack of babka prior to either bakery’s arrival. Lots of bakeries, notably Green’s Bakery of Brooklyn, had been making and selling the gooey, yeasted cake for decades. Local New York comedian Jerry Seinfeld even devoted an episode of his eponymous show to the sweet treat back in 1994.
But Breads brought a babka to New York unlike anything that New Yorkers had ever tasted before. It was made with a laminated dough, similar to croissants, and it was at once light, fluffy and rich, layered with butter, stuffed with Nutella and chocolate chunks, and glazed with a simple syrup. A couple of months after Breads opened on East 16th St. near Union Square in 2013, New York magazine food writers Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite anointed Breads’ babka as the best in the city.
“The business went boom!” Michaeli told the New York Jewish Week. Almost overnight, Breads went from a virtually unknown purveyor of Israeli pastries to an essential stop on the tourist food trail.
“Everyone starts to come and take pictures with the babka,” said Michaeli. During their first Rosh Hashanah, not long after the New York magazine article appeared, Michaeli said the bakery sold 3,000 loaves of babka in a single day.
(Co-founder Scheft left Breads in 2021 and now runs Bakey, a Boston bakery. As for Breads’ current ownership, a spokesperson said that Michaeli “had nothing to do with the creation of Breads Bakery’s Babka.”)
After leaving Breads, Michaeli considered opening up a bakery in Tel Aviv and briefly returned there, but, assessing the competition, he soon realized that his future was in New York.
“There was only one Israeli bakery in New York — more [of them] should come,” he said.
Living on the Upper West Side while working on his business plan and meeting with potential investors, Michaeli did some baking for Anat Sror, an Israeli-born caterer and owner of Cafe Petisco, a now-closed restaurant on the Lower East Side.
Sror knew that Michaeli wanted to start his own bakery, and though she had never invested in anybody before, she decided to back Michaeli. “He’s very talented, very passionate, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do,” said Sror. “He had a great business plan. Plus, we had worked together so I knew exactly what he is capable of. I felt it was a good risk to take.”
Sror helped Michaeli find a storefront not too far from Cafe Petisco. They both agreed it was not an ideal location, but it was within their budget. “We trusted that once people try his stuff and get to know the bakery, things will be easier,” Sror said.
Michaeli Bakery opened on Division St. on the Lower East Side in May 2019. Conceived as an “Israeli patisserie,” it sold pastries, cookies, cakes, cream cakes, cheesecakes, sandwiches and, on Fridays, challah.
Less than a year later, however, just as the bakery was developing a name for itself, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the city to its knees. As New Yorkers stayed home or left the city altogether, Sror shut her restaurant and catering concern. Meanwhile, Michaeli streamlined his bakery’s offerings, focusing on babka, rugelach and bourekas, dropping the sandwiches and cakes on his original menu.
During the long months of the pandemic, Michaeli said he worked round the clock, keeping the business open seven days a week and working as the establishment’s baker, barista and manager. On the bright side? “It gave me the flexibility to build the business over time,” he said.
His efforts paid off: Less than three years later, in March 2022, Michaeli and Sror opened a second location on East 90th St. and First Ave. “The decision to open on the Upper East Side was because customers kept saying it was too far to come to the Lower East Side,” said Sror.
Sensing “the vibe” uptown, according to Michaeli, he decided to make the bakery kosher. “My integrity is that if I’m kosher, I’m kosher,” he said, referring to his decision to have kosher supervision for both bakeries, and to close them on Saturdays and early on Fridays. “Uptown Sunday is super busy, we need the reset of Saturday. “
“My vision is that I do the best that I can,” he added. “Everyone on the team is the same. Every day should be 100%. There is no 99%. This is the DNA of the place.”
One loyal customer, art consultant Andrea Meislin, raves about the “chocolate-y, gooey and decadent” babka at Michaeli, what Meislin describes as “babka to die for.” In addition to the chocolate babka, Michaeli makes a vegan chocolate babka, cheese and cherry babka and halvah babka. His Galil bourekas, made with goat cheese, onion and za’atar, are very popular, too.
These days, the biggest challenge Michaeli faces, he said, is dealing with the enormous demand the holidays bring. “For Hanukkah, I sent the manager out to the line on the street, to say that we are sorry. We can’t catch up with demand,” said Michaeli. “We told customers [on line] to go away. It was horrible. It is a problem I am trying to solve.”
Moving forward, Sror is optimistic that the bakery will expand: “It will either be another location, perhaps on the Upper West Side, or we are thinking about making a bigger location to be able to produce a bit more,” she said. Sror hopes Michaeli will be able to expand his menu, perhaps by adding his classic, light Israeli cheesecakes, what Michaeli calls “Grandma Cheesecake.”
When asked what differentiates Michaeli’s baked goods from Breads’ or other bakeries’, the baker refused to compare, stating that he just aims to do the best he can, all the time. “If someone says this is better than this or that, I really don’t care,” says Michaeli. “There is no competition. This is what we do.”
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