For Zak Stern of Zak the Baker fame, baking is more than just a business. It’s about serving Jewish soul food.
By Jan Norris
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
“I’m just another bearded dude baking bread, ” Zak Stern says.
We beg to differ. Rock-star success has hit Stern, who owns one of South Florida’s most popular bakeries along with a newly opened kosher deli, though you wouldn’t know it from Stern’s humble nature. Wynwood’s Zak the Baker has garnered national attention and an almost cult-like following. Long before closing on any given day, it sells out of breads, including 200 to 300 loaves of rich egg challah baked for weekly Shabbat.
At his new 405 Deli, a glatt kosher eatery a block away, lines wrap around the block before the doors open each day. The crowds are after his fresh breads, corned beef made in-house, soups and salads, plate-sized cookies and the chocolate babka.
The owner, a lanky, smiling man with a long, black beard, wears jeans and work boots, a baker’s apron powdery with flour, and a woven baker’s hat as he works behind the counter. During our interview, he breaks into a few bars of “Angeline the Baker,” an old bluegrass tune he played on streets in Europe while learning his baker’s craft. It stuck with him and almost became the name of the bakery, but in the end, Zak the Baker “sounded good,” he says.
Stern’s rise to popularity seems almost overnight, but his roundabout journey to get there is the stuff of movies: an idealist wanders the world, loses a lover and gains a wife—all while learning an ancient art that would bring him capital success.
Born in Miami, Stern began as a physiology major at Florida State University in 2003. But four years later, after switching to Mercer University for pharmacy school, he realized the sciences weren’t for him.
He left academia and joined an international organic farm apprenticeship program, taking jobs on farms in a number of countries that offer lessons with master craftsmen in exchange for work. Admittedly, he didn’t have a master plan when he left, only to bake bread and grow food. As Stern puts it, “I was young. I wanted to live.”
Eventually, baking breads and making cheeses became his focus. He returned to South Florida after spending five years abroad and getting over a broken heart. He brought with him an Israeli girlfriend whom he met while farming on a commune (she would later become his wife). In his Little Haiti backyard, he kept several Alpine goats to make cheese and used his garage as a bakery. The art of baking proved tedious and demanding, and Stern eventually sold the goats and focused solely on breads.
Unable to afford employees, Stern became a one-man bakery operating from his garage. He’d get up early, make the doughs and proof them, bake them, wrap them, deliver the loaves to clients—“a 20-hour process,” he says. Then he would clean late at night to prepare for the next day. “Rinse and repeat,” he says.
His roommates had issues with flour everywhere, however, so he found a commissary space for baking within a year. Soon, he had a small staff—including apprentices learning from him—and the dream of his own bakery percolating.
The original Zak the Baker location, which opened in 2014 where the deli now stands, wasn’t open to the public at first, but word-of-mouth made his product a food lover’s mystical grail. He would sell every loaf he baked at a green market within an hour of arriving, which left latecomers empty-handed.
It’s the flavor, they say. Stern, however, says the tangy sourdough starter is the secret. Wild yeast from the air ferments the leaven, the wet mixture that ultimately becomes the dough. A piece of each starter is saved, and the process repeats itself in each loaf that’s baked on stones—another nod to centuries-old traditions.
“I got the recipe for the mother starter from when I was on a goat cheese farm in Israel,” he says. “It’s gone from a Gerber jar with me around the world to here; it’s cool to know it now pays 70 employees from one piece of dough.”
The small bakery he first opened in Wynwood gained traction quickly as businesses such as Panther Coffee and craft brewers helped foster the neighborhood’s indie spirit that the self-described socialist was seeking.
“I wanted the bakery to be in a place with a counterculture of craftsmanship,” Stern says. “Wynwood had that three years ago. It was an industrial area, and there was a craftsmanship crusade taking place.”
Success also brought new challenges. “I had to learn to run a business. I thought, ‘How do we grow the business the right way?’ I used to be the one saying, ‘Damn the Man!’ Now, it’s ‘Oh, shit! I’m the Man!’”
Along with his teachers, he gives complete credit to his parents, who now help run the 405 Deli. His mom, Leslie, works the cash register while his dad, Harvey, works with meats.
Stern has put a decidedly Florida spin on Ashkenazi foods he grew up with (his great-grandparents immigrated from Latvia, Poland and Russia), bucking a trend toward Sephardic foods of lamb, yogurt and chickpeas. “This is my people’s soul food,” he says.
The kosher menu attracts all diners, from bearded hipsters to strict Orthodox Jews. Locals find themselves bumping into tourists who’ve read about Zak the Baker in The New York Times, showing up to try a babka or baguette before they’re gone for the day.
A broader audience is finding his bread through a partnership with Whole Foods Market that began two years ago. Stern’s kosher sourdough is now sold in the tri-county area through the chain, and as shoppers discover it, some make the trek to Miami for more.
This relationship with the grocer is ideal, Stern says. “I think it’s been a great example of Whole Foods giving support to local partners,” he says. “They care about you. They’ve made a commitment to one-day-fresh breads. It’s a big deal. We’re the little guys; they’re big Whole Foods.”
Robert Whittaker, the regional bakery coordinator for Whole Foods Market, is keen on the relationship as well. The bread complements what Whole Foods is able to offer from its own large bakery commissary, he says.
“Zak’s breads are kosher, and our bakehouse is not, so we are unable to duplicate these breads,” Whittaker says. “Local suppliers are the incubator for artisan products.”
Stern’s team delivers 50 to 60 fresh loaves to 13 store locations daily from the 7,000-square-foot bakery. The best-selling chocolate babka is sold here as well. It also goes to The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale; the Loews Miami Beach Hotel; the Mandarin Oriental Miami and a few other local restaurants.
If there’s a downside to all of this, it’s Stern’s passion for his craft that’s a curse as well as a blessing. “You become a maniac; the love for the job can turn into a mania for the job when you’re so passionate about it,” Stern says. “You can get tunnel vision. It’s important to me to have space for eating, for my family, for balance—and for taking care of myself.”
That includes his health. He suffered a stroke last year but quickly bounced back, to his fans’ relief. They flooded social media with well wishes after he posted photos of his hospital meal on Instagram.
Expansion plans are something he’d consider in the future, but at the moment, he’s more interested in taking care of his people. “We’re a company now, and I want to make sure that if we’re creating jobs, they’re jobs worth creating,” he says.
He’s still a dreamer and an idealist, though, and he doesn’t want that to get lost amid what looks like an overnight success to those who have just discovered him. At this, he laughs. “It may be overnight for them, but it ain’t overnight for us.”
Originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Issue.