My doorbell rang the other day, and when I opened the door a masked man was driving away with a wave from a van called the Babkamobile. And hanging from my front railing was a bag of just-baked treasures — rugelach, braided challah, poppy-dusted bagels, and chocolate-halva babka from Essen Bakery in South Philly.
In these fearful days of quarantine and sparse store shelves, my first bite of that richly marbled babka tasted like a sweet miracle.
Getting fresh bread in the time of coronavirus is different. But it’s still possible as local bakers scramble to keep their ovens firing and devise new ways to deliver loaves to their customers safely. Online and app orders, minimal-touch delivery, and a fragile-yet-still-functioning grocery store infrastructure have kept the world of carbs afloat.
“We considered shutting down fully,” said Alex Bois of Lost Bread Co. “Then we saw grocery stores having a hard time keeping food on shelves. That gave us a gut check. Almost a moral responsibility. And we realized now is the time for a strong regional food system to really shine because there’s quite a bit of incident-related food insecurity."
The shift, with fewer workers turning out larger quantities of a smaller range of breads, has been possible for Lost Bread, which can still rely on its primary outlet of grocery business, along with twice-a-week preorders for pickup from its Fishtown storefront, where Bois also sells flour and gives away sourdough starter. (Several local bakeries, including Mighty Bread Co. and Four Worlds, will give away starter on request.)
But it’s hardly been easy, as bakeries large and small have undergone dramatic staff reductions and had to instantly reimagine their business models, as residents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been advised to stay at home aside from getting essentials — like food. Wholesale-oriented bakeries like sourdough specialist Mighty Bread Co. lost 80% of its business overnight when restaurants abruptly shut down, and shifted focus to supplying grocers and time-slotted pickup times at its bakery for prepaid online orders. Machine Shop Boulangerie, whose croissants and kouign-amanns are a staple in local cafés, has ceased baking for the time being.
Small operations like Essen, meanwhile, which sold the majority of its products direct from its storefront cafe, have shifted to home delivery.
“We’re all in the same boat,” says Essen’s Tova du Plessis, who laid off her front house staff. “But I got creative really fast. We’re just three people now baking three times a week, all wearing gloves and masks as we pack up pre-ordered food straight into bags. It’s just a short period of time from the oven to the van, and there’s only a couple of hands on everything.”
The staff reductions are particularly difficult, but bakers like Four World’s Mike Dolich say the smaller team of workers has helped keep the circle tight enough to closely monitor employee health through minimal interaction and maintain tight sanitation practices, deep cleaning before and after every shift.
“Only two people at a time are working and it’s always the same people,” he says. “Our first priority was to keep the bakery open and keep it safe, rather than worry about producing our full line of breads. We just want to survive this period and evolve a system.”
Here’s an update on where to find great bread from several Philly-area bakeries.
Metropolitan Bakery: One of Philly’s pioneers in French-style artisan bread has shut most of its retail outlets. Its West Philly franchise (4013 Walnut St.) is taking pre-orders, and Metro’s loaves are still widely available at grocery stores (Rittenhouse Market; South Square Market, Di Bruno Bros., MOM’s Organic Market, all Weavers Way Coops, Essene, and Jansens in Wilmington). Specialty breads like Metro’s organic miche can be ordered online and shippedto your home.
Lost Bread Co. (1313 N. Howard St.): After a brief shutdown, Lost Bread has reopened with a limited portfolio of its exceptional whole grain loaves and pretzel shortbreads to local grocers (MOM’s Organic, Riverwards Produce, Rittenhouse Market; South Square Market, Di Bruno Bros.), as well as the Clark Park Saturday farmers market. Order online the day ahead to pick up Thursday and Sunday at the Howard Street location, where Lost Bread also sells flour it mills from local grains, plus free sourdough starter.
Four Worlds Bakery: The West Philly bakery’s retail storefront is closed (for now), but a limited selection of its whole wheat sourdough bagels, pain au levain, rye, and challah are still being supplied to Mariposa (4824 Baltimore Ave.) and Weavers Way Coops. An online retail store is in the works, but the platform is currently focused on crowdfunding donations to keep free croissants and bagels supplied to local health-care workers.
Cafetería & Panadería Las Rosas (1712 S. 8th St.): One of South Philly’s best Mexican bread bakeries is still turning out perfect rolls for tortas and cemita sandwiches, but slow demand is threatening the business. Only one customer is allowed in the bakery at a time, however, and morning is best for limited production.
Leonardo’s Italian Bakery (183 Bustleton Pike, Feasterville, 215-357-0357): One of my favorite crusty loaves of rustic Italian bread comes from this Lower Bucks bakery, and it’s still available at Produce Junction markets. Curbside delivery is available at the bakery (and its attached Da Vinci’s Pizzeria) after orders placed by phone are prepaid with credit card. Delivery also available through the ChowNow and EatStreet apps.
High Street on Market (308 Market St.): The restaurant that set the high bar for restaurant-baked breads is still baking local grain Keystone loaves, roasted potato breads, and spelt baguettes for contact-free delivery from Caviar to go along with the restaurant’s currently homey take-out menu and $20 staff meals. Store access is available but limited.
Essen Bakery (1437 E Passyunk Ave.): If you’re craving chocolate-halvah babkas and challah, check this bakery’s Instagram page to see if the Babkamobile is making the rounds in your neighborhood, and pre-order. For those who sign up in time, Tova du Plessis’ tiny Jewish bakery makes home deliveries three times a week in South Philly and Center City. The menu and delivery details change frequently.
Mighty Bread Co. (1211 Gerritt St.): Another of Philly’s serious next-gen bakers, Mighty Bread is now an online store with pre-orders for sourdough, walnut raisin, and deli rye loaves, and ciabatta sandwiches (free starter also available). The sign-up list goes live Mondays and Thursdays at noon for next day pickup with time slots for social distancing. Loaves are still available retail at Riverwards Produce and Di Bruno Bros.
Delices et Chocolat (9 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, 610-649-7001): Who couldn’t use a rainbow of macarons right now? Ardmore’s fine French patisserie sells them for call-ahead, curbside pickup, along with soups, pastries, and dinners to go.
Hungry Pigeon (743 S. 4th St.): Co-owner and baker Pat O’Malley is baking the city’s best croissants all by his lonesome now, along with house breads, granola, and sweets to be ordered online for pickup, along with co-chef Scott Schroeder’s grass-fed beef chili, chicken cacciatore, and other homey specials.
The Bakeshop on Twentieth (269 S. 20th St.): This charming Rittenhouse storefront bakery is especially gifted with classic sweets like chocolate chunk brownies, babkas, scones, and Italian ricotta cookies. Pay by Venmo for curbside pickup or use mobile apps (Uber Eats, Grubhub, Caviar, etc.) for direct brookie-to-home delivery.
Philly Bread: The home of burger-friendly sweet potato buns and the Philly Muffin, Pete Merzbacker’s square take on the English muffin, has shifted focus from wholesale to retail. Find them at Mariposa and Weavers Way Coops, MOM’s Organic, Riverwards Produce, Primal Supply, and Giant’s Heirloom Markets.
Sarcone’s Bakery (758 S. 9th St., 215-922-0445): Hoagies and tomato pie might get us through this. And the Italian Market’s fifth-generation institution has us covered through UberEats delivery or call-ahead orders for quick pickup in-store with only one customer at a time.
Faragalli’s (1400 S. 13th St.): The last of Philly’s wood-fired brick oven Italian bakers is in crisis mode, too. The whole family got tested and cleared from COVID-19 this week, so they’re back to normal hours and cash-only sales. Claudio’s (924 S. 9th St.) in the Italian Market is its only other retail outlet.
Dulce Artisanal Pastry (740A Haddon Ave., Collingswood): Some of South Jersey’s best Euro-style breads, Viennoiserie, macarons, and pastries are available for take-out within curfew hours, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Only one customer allowed in the store at a time, and Apple Pay is an option for touch-free paying.
Baker Street (Cafe: 8009 Germantown Ave.; Production bakery: 1107 South 20th St.): This Chestnut Hill institution was one of Philly’s first artisan bakeries, opened in 1992, but remains underrated since much of its business is wholesale to restaurants. The Chestnut Hill Café is still open for curbside pickup, and breads are on grocery shelves in South Jersey at several ShopRites; in Bucks County at McCaffrey’s Food Markets; in South Philly at Rowhouse Grocery, and Weavers Way Coops. Weekend pickups now available from the Point Breeze production facility with pre-orders.