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For fresh and fragrant challah or heavenly cinnamon babka, generations of Monsey residents knew they could always find a slice of Gan Eden in the Frank family’s bakery. What they may not have realized is that when the streets grew dark and the storefront closed, family members ranging from grandparents to newborns would spend hours preparing the confections that so delighted their customers — and kept them coming back for more
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Every neighborhood has its iconic landmarks. Those are the stores you grew up with, the ones you think will be there forever. In Brooklyn, it’s Amnon’s Pizza. In Lakewood, it’s Shloimy’s supermarket. And in Monsey, it’s always been Frank’s Bakery. Ask any Monsey resident and they’ll tell you that Shabbos just isn’t the same without challos from Frank’s.
Now that iconic bakery has recently closed its doors. And the Frank family, clearly in a nostalgic mood, is ready to share some cherished memories. In the warm and welcoming home of Reb Yehuda and Gila Frank on a quiet street in New Square (where the doors are wide open and you can probably leave your car unlocked), I’m sitting at their oversized dining room table set with cold drinks, candies, and of course — marble cake. I’m surrounded by what seems to be the gantze mishpoochah (it isn’t).
I’m introduced to Yaakov Yosef and Miri, Estie, Gitty, and Ruchie, and children and grandchildren of the Franks. As we speak, various other family members, including some youngsters, wander over to join us. For the Frank family, our conversation is clearly a stroll down memory lane. For me, it’s an opportunity to hear firsthand how a bakery can turn a family into a cohesive unit, all of them joined together by their determination to make a good business great.
She Needs the Money
Frank’s Bakery was first established by Reb Yoel Frank z”l back in the 1950s when New Square was just being established as a community. It began as a small mom-and-pop shop serving the local families who chose to settle there. Reb Yoel, a Holocaust survivor, was actually a printer back in Hungary. But he had once purchased a building that housed a bakery, and so he was somewhat familiar with the trade even before coming to America.
Eventually, Reb Yoel decided to move his store from New Square to Monsey. Back then, Monsey was barely a shtetl and nobody could have envisioned how the community was destined to grow. Yet he must have sensed something, because in 1962, he set out to search for the perfect bakery location.
He found it in the center of town, at 51 Main Street. But the property was priced at $17,000, and he was told that it was only worth twelve.
The story of what happened next is by now family legend.
“My father went to the old Skverer Rebbe and asked what he should do,” says Reb Yoel’s son Yehuda. “The Rebbe, who knew that the owner of the property was an almanah, said to pay her $23,000 for it! He told my father, ‘She needs the money. And that chesed will help you down the road.’
“My father flipped. It was a small fortune. But he had a very strong emunas tzaddikim so he did as he was told. He bought the premises at the high price and expanded it to a full-fledged bakery. That was in 1965. And that’s when it really took off.”
The Rebbe’s blessings materialized before their very eyes. The bakery was all consuming and the work was hard, but it was a labor of love. Reb Yoel and his wife Breindel were fully invested in the store “yomam v’lailah,” say their children. Their two sons, Yaakov Yitzchok and Yehuda, were involved since childhood.
“Ever since I’m ten years old,” says Reb Yehuda. “If there was an hour and a half lunch break at yeshivah, I would take a fifteen minute lunch and spend the rest of the time at the bakery.” The bakery became an integral part of the family’s life, incorporating both children and grandchildren. Over the years, 12 family members found their employment in the bakery.
We Were a Team
While Reb Yoel immersed himself in the baking, his wife Breindel perfected the skills of customer service. “She knew every customer by name and she knew all of their children. She knew where they had moved to and what they were doing. And she always made sure to inquire about them,” says Reb Yehuda.
She also knew everybody’s favorite cake or pastry, as well as who liked their marble cake heavy and who liked it light. She would add up their totals with a pencil on a brown paper bag and tell the customers to “look it over when they get home to make sure that I didn’t make a mistake.” She never did.
And while the bakery was officially named Monsey Kosher Bake Shop, most people knew it simply as “Mrs. Frank’s Bakery.”
“She worked until a week before she was nifteres seventeen years ago,” says her granddaughter Ruchie. “The bakery was her life.”
That work ethic remained in the family even after she was gone. Reb Yehuda jokes that “my daughter Ruchie was born in the bowl of the mixer.” All kidding aside, his daughters tell me that sometimes they would stop at the bakery to say hi while on their way home from the hospital with a newborn baby.
The bakery was a second home, the work a labor of love. There were no designated chores. “Everybody did everything,” says Gila. “My mother-in-law used to say, ‘S’iz nisht mine job, dine job — It’s not my job or your job.’ We shared the work among ourselves.”
During the afternoons the various family members would work behind the counter, which meant interacting with the customers and developing sharp mathematical skills. On Thursday evenings they would sit and braid challahs.
“It took six to eight people five hours to braid everything,” Gila remembers. And then there were the tedious chores. “We had to match up the two sides of a sandwich cookie by shape and color and then squirt the jelly between the halves.”
Whatever the job was, they were happy to do it and took great pride in their work. There was a certain sense of accomplishment, of being part of a team, a family that works together.
Make Yourself Heimish
Frank’s Bakery had its special charm. Unpretentious and down to earth, their specialties were classic babkas, rugelach, cakes and cookies with a definitive heimish touch. And the customers couldn’t get enough of it. Their sugar cookies, simple and misshapen as they may have been, were legendary. “They weren’t fancy or glamorous,” says Ruchie, “but even after we closed people were calling us to find out if we had any left.”
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