Babkaman’s Parting Message

by Paul Bass | July 11, 2006 9:13 AM | | Comments (13)

 In the wake of closing his family’s 34-year-old bakery, Phil Weinberger urged his former customers, “Remember to support kosher businesses.”

* * * *

Sunday morning found Phil Weinberger at his home near the Yale Golf Course in Upper Westville. Until recently, Sunday morning found him — starting at 1 a.m. — baking kosher breads and desserts in Wallingford, then selling them at the Westville Kosher Bakery on Whalley Avenue.

The 57 year-old Weinberger — known on the Internet as “Babkaman” through a mail-order kosher baked-goods business he ran — was talking about babka and challah Sunday morning. Talking about what it took, and what it meant, to bake goods that Jewish families who follow kosher dietary laws depended on. Talking about how his grandfather Nathan ran a kosher bakery on Legion Avenue. Talking about how his parents started the popular New Haven bakery in 1972 that he took over in 1988. And not talking, or trying not to talk, about the decision he and his wife Jill made to close the Westville bakery, their Wallingford shop, and the online business right before Memorial Day.

Weinberger was determined not to talk about the details of why he closed because he wants to look ahead and move on with his life. The bakery closed at a busy and at times tumultuous period in New Haven’s kosher economy. On the one hand, an enviable roster of kosher-supervised food establishments are in business, an impressive number for a small city. On the other hand, that has increased the competition. Also, a changing of the rabbinical guard after a long period of stability at local Orthodox synagogues has led to some painful disputes within the Jewish community over supervision of kosher businesses.

“We closed for business reasons. The business climate was difficult. We should have done this two, three years ago.” That’s all Weinberger was willing to say for publication about what led to the bakery’s closing.

He did want to impress on the Jewish community the need to find ways to support kosher businesses over the long term.

“You open a business to make money. Bottom line,” Weinberger said. “When you open a kosher business, it’s not all about making money. It’s about building community. People can’t forget this. They have to remember. The person who opens a kosher business already is at a disadvantage. It’s going to cost him a lot more money to do the same business,” because of extra costs associated with meeting religious kosher standards.

“When you deal with rabbis,” Weinberger continued, “however they interpret the halakhah [Jewish law], there shouldn’t be levity, but there should be support” on such questions as demanding changes in the way an establishment is run when it has been supervised by a rabbi for many years. “The next time they [customers] think of going into a store, they should remember to support kosher businesses. Rabbis come and go. But we live here.”

The Westville Kosher Bakery’s closing left something of a void in the community, at least in the Amity stretch of Westville where several kosher businesses are located, because it sold “pareve” desserts and challahs, the egg breads that Jewish families eat at the Friday night Sabbath meal. Pareve foods are cooked in ovens and pans that touch neither dairy nor meat. So religious Jewish families, who don’t mix milk and meat dishes or eat milk and meat together, can use pareve challahs for both meat and dairy Sabbath meals.

“The hardest thing?” Weinberger said. “We went swimming the other day [at a Woodbridge pool club]. There was a family. They have triplets. We did their party when they were first born.

“The wife says to me, ‘My son was crying. He said, “Where am I going to get my cookies?”’

Just then, Weinberger recalled, the boy walked up to his mother. “He sees me and my wife standing there. He starts crying again. That was hard. It felt worse than closing.”

A kosher outlet closer to downtown, Stella’s European Bakery & CafĂ©, at 372 Whalley Ave. in the Edgewood/Beaver Hills area, does sell pareve baked goods. It has seen a spike in business since Weinberger closed up shop.

Some other places to buy kosher baked goods or other food in New Haven: Westville Kosher (Glatt) Market (95 Amity Rd.), Edge of the Woods (379 Whalley Ave.), Claire’s Corner Copia (corner of Chapel and College streets), the Amity Stop and Shop, and Kosher Express (Chinese food, 132 Amity Rd.).

Phil Weinberger doesn’t plan to start a new kosher business to add to that list. He said he’s currently “resolving our financial issues” with the bakery. Then, he said, “I’d like to get my business behind me. I’m going to work for someone else. I don’t want food. I don’t want to be [a] kosher [business]. I don’t want rabbis. Nothing against any of them,” he said, but he’d like to move on.

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Posted by: furball [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 12, 2006 12:37 AM

Babkaman got no comments yet?
Awful loss for Westville/Amity. I moved here in 1997 and know this as a morning gathering place... and a source of H&H that feel fresher than other "real New York" bagels.

No more food service. No more Rabbis. Sounds like wonderful prospects. Good Luck Babkaman!

Posted by: nfjanette [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 12, 2006 1:43 AM

Opinions in the community seem all over the place as to where to put the blame, but the bottom line is we've lost a nice kosher bakery and bagel joint. Apparently, the previous generation of kosher Jews in New Haven knew nothing about keeping kosher - thank goodness we're setting them straight these days. See, we fixed it: they closed. Whoops. When it comes to kosher supervision, religious opinions on the proper approach may vary, but follow the money to understand a powerful underlying dynamic that will cause more and more grief for kosher consumers.

Posted by: maxstein | July 14, 2006 12:18 AM

I have known Phil and Jill for dozens of years. They have a wonderful family. They worked so terribly hard and I can assure all of you they weren't getting wealthy at this. While all of you were sleeping at 3am, where do you think Phil was? He put up with an inordinate amount of crap from all the competing rabbis and boards of Kahruth, enough to have made me throw in the towel many years ago, but he kept at it. Was it just hallacha or could it be more sinister as in how much to pay the bloodsuckers. Shame on the New Haven community, shame on the rabbis, shame on the new generation of religious zealots. I left New Haven years ago in part due to the religious POLITICS. A good man and his family are now without a business that they called home and many in the community also called home. SHAME SHAME SHAME. Phil, keep smiling........

Posted by: Jaime | July 24, 2006 10:23 PM

Phil gave me my first job when I was a nervous teenager trying to enter the workforce. He tought me about good work ethics and customer service, lessons that have served me for years now. He was fair and honest with customers and employees, but never skimped on the quality of his product. When I left for college, I recommended to my little sister that the best place to get a job was at the Westville Bakery, and she worked for Phil, too. I have fond memories of warm bread and the supportive family that baked for New Haven for so many years. best of luck to the Weinbergers.

Posted by: Phil Weinberger | July 27, 2006 10:59 PM

I am so sad. I never had the chance to visit the store of the man with my name (There are so few of us!). I also missed the Food Network show but heard about it.

Oh well. Hopefully Phil will get a fresh start and I can try his new venture.

Posted by: Maura | August 5, 2006 3:51 PM

I am so sad that the Westville Bakery closed. We visited regularly for the pumpernickel raisin and rye bread with seeds and and hard rolls and bialys. They were the best!!!!!!
I will miss the most wonderful breads....

Posted by: Connie | August 6, 2006 9:40 PM

Good Luck to you and your family, don't give up baking. There are not enought great bakers left.

Posted by: Harriet | August 7, 2006 1:28 PM

Your babka was the best - best of luck with your future endeavors.
Steven's sister and mother

Posted by: rachel4981 | August 8, 2006 1:35 PM

I loved this shop. Personally, I'm getting sick of rabbis. Look at Solomon Dweck in NJ. They do more harm than good.

Posted by: rachel4981 | August 8, 2006 1:36 PM

I loved this shop. Personally, I'm getting sick of rabbis. Look at Solomon Dweck in NJ. They do more harm than good. Best wishes to this family, we're so sorry to see you go.

Posted by: timgunn | August 9, 2006 10:33 PM

I am absolutely heart broken. I worked at the bakery for 6+ years. In 2004 I moved to Texas knowing that every trip back to CT would give me the opportunity to visit Phil & Jill and enjoy the finest baked goods ever made by hand. These two individuals taught me a great deal but more importantly gave me the confidence to become the best that I could be - comparable to their products. I just can't imagine life without another cinnamon raisin babka, seven layer cake, chocolate eclairs, cakes, cookies, challah, naugy rye bread and the list goes on. I wish the Weinberger family all the luck in the future. You will always be in my heart but I will miss the Westville Kosher Bakery.

Posted by: rita moran | August 18, 2006 8:30 AM

I never got to visit the shop; but I have been buying babkas from Babkaman since seeing him on Al Roker's Food Network show. Best babka since my grandmother's. Best of luck! Will miss the apple babka especially.

Posted by: Sheila Footer | August 30, 2006 2:06 PM

I also have been buying babkas since I saw the Al Roker Show. Your babkas were the best. I have sent them to friends and family and puchased them for myself. I am so sorry that we will not be able to do so again.

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