Each week Rosendorff’s Bakery transforms 7,500 pounds of flour into challah and challah rolls. At its kosher baking facility in Pikesville, the aroma of the dozens of breads and rolls is hard to adequately describe, as is the effect of Gary Rosendorff’s lilting South African accent and his bubbling infectious laugh. (Have a listen at washingtonjewishweek.com.)
“Even as a child, I loved to bake bread,” said a smiling Rosendorff, patriarch of the family-owned and operated bakery. “You take these things that are kind of inedible – flour and oil and eggs, none of these things are appetizing – you mix them together and you put some yeast into it, and it turns into something completely different. It’s always been a magical thing for me.”
Many Jewish families in the greater Baltimore-Washington area have torn into a loaf of Rosendorff’s tender, slightly sweet bread at the start of a Shabbat meal. According to the longtime baker, a lot goes into each loaf, from high-quality ingredients and a rich history to hard work and loving care.
Rosendorff, 58, was born in the small town of Bloemfontein, where the Jewish community was about 400 families, but Jewish education more or less ended with a bar or bat mitzvah. As he got older, the “nonreligious Jewish life” was not enough for him, so in his mid-20s, Rosendorff went to study in Israel. It was there that he met Sara, from Providence, R.I., who became his wife. They started a family, and he needed to provide for them.
Rosendorff admits he has always gravitated toward work that required physical creation – not art, but craft, in the utilitarian sense. He chose to become a ritual scribe, creating scrolls for mezuzahs and tefillin while living in Israel. In 1995, after moving his family to Baltimore, he worked at a matzah factory, but it was seasonal work; the job ended the week before Passover.
As fate would have it, his first “business” career would begin while standing in line at Liebes Deli waiting for chopped liver. Rosendorff struck up a conversation with the man behind him, told him his story and that he was new to Baltimore. The man told Rosendorff to come and interview at his company; a few days later, Rosendorff began working at the man’s wholesale electronics business.
“Everything I know about business I learned from these people,” said Rosendorff. “You think there’s no connection between baking and electronics, but you’ve got to buy your product, you’ve got to sell it, and you’ve got to collect your money; it’s much the same kind of thing. You’ve got to bake the bread, you’ve got to find the customers, you’ve got to sell it, and you’ve got to collect the money.”
It was another seemingly random conversation that sparked the idea to sell challah. Rosendorff and his wife baked challah regularly, giving it away to family and friends. But in 1996 while doing taxes, his accountant warned him that he wasn’t making enough money and suggested selling challah from his home to perhaps make a few thousand dollars a year. Rosendorff was shocked at the suggestion that he might make that much selling challah.
“That’s how we started selling,” said Rosendorff, still displaying some disbelief. “We could only put four challahs in the oven at a time, and you had to flip the challahs, so I spent most of Thursday night making four challahs at a time. Maybe the first week we made 10 or 12 challahs. … There were a lot of late nights and early mornings and stress. … We did that for a few years.”
Then Rosendorff lost his “day job.” He took stock of his situation and believed that, at his age, he couldn’t possibly look for a job where he would be working for someone else.
“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer,” he explained. “I [couldn’t] go around looking for another job. … I was just kind of thrown into it. Oh, I can’t believe how fortunate I was.”
In 2000, Rosendorff’s Bakery moved into a wholesale space in Menlo Park. About 18 months ago it moved to the larger Pikesville facility, dispensing products at 28 locations in the Baltimore/D.C./New Jersey area. Three of his seven children – Yossi, Baruch and Esty – work in the business.
“You’re constantly working with a product that’s moving,” said Yossi Rosendorff, the second eldest son, who has been helping since high school and has worked full time for about 10 years. “You’re starting … in the beginning of the day and you’re ending with product at the end of the day, so it’s a very unique business and a business that requires a lot of love and attention, and blood, sweat and tears.”
The son explains that bread ingredients combined don’t taste like much on their own, and that it is fermentation that creates bread’s flavor; he compares it to making good wine or beer.
Rosendorff’s challah ferments between 24 to 48 hours.
“It’s something that you do by taste, by smell and by feel,” continued the son. “Bread is kind of finicky, and it’s not something that’s easy to produce. … Everybody can make bread, but hoping to get a good tasting, well-balanced bread is not that easy.”
His father said the most amazing experience he’s had with people since moving to America is that people have wanted to see him succeed. Many have gone out of their way to take him on as a supplier or offer him solid business advice. In the past year, Rosendorff’s has continued to grow with the addition of rye, multigrain and whole wheat breads, as well as a limited amount of cakes, cookies and pastries.
“I can’t say the world is a better place because I bake challah,” Rosendorff said with a laugh, “but maybe it’s a little bit better.”