Zak Stern: The Bread Winner

Zak Stern is trying to figure out how not to let his runaway success get too far ahead of him.
Zak Stern is trying to figure out how not to let his runaway success get too far ahead of him.
Photo by Stian Roenning

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

Three years ago, life was much simpler for Zak Stern. The bearded wunderkind baker did all of his work in a small oven in his garage before eventually moving into a compact Hialeah workspace. Each day as the sun crested the horizon, a few dozen loaves finished developing a deep-auburn crust, and soon the precious packages were en route to a farmers' market.

These days, Stern -- AKA Zak the Baker -- still preps his bread before daybreak, but as he chats at one of the small tables in his namesake whitewashed Wynwood bakery/café, he's accosted by well-wishers and handshakes. An employee whispers in his ear about a restaurant on the phone that wants bread for a recipe it's testing. A boisterous line for avocado toasts and little glass jars of smoked whitefish stretches to the door.

"This was supposed to be a showroom for the bakery," he says.

So it goes when you make by far the best loaves in town. Today, Stern and his wife and business partner Batsheva Wulfsohn are trying to figure out how not to let their runaway success get too far ahead of them. Big money has been dangled and turned down. "We want to grow with grace," he adds.

They did, however, accept an offer from the year-old television station Fusion to appear in a documentary about defining the modern-day artisan. The word is so overused it's lost its meaning, Stern says. But in trying to understand where the line between the craftsman and the faceless corporation falls, he finds himself forced to reassess his business and life.

"Because of our expansion, we've been able to purchase new equipment that has increased quality and efficiency," he says. "We bought a dough mixer; does that mean we're not artisans? What if we bought a dough separator? What would we be then?"

The answer is unclear, but Stern thinks it rests in ensuring that customers remain connected to the process no matter how large it becomes.

At his bakery, he doesn't conceal the moment when a massive, amoeba-like blob of dough is dropped with a sickening slap onto the wooden kneading table. His vibrant toasts topped with bright-pink pickled onions and glossy apricot marmalade may end up on Instagram, but while you eat, you also see the work that brought them together.

"Miami is always thought of as a sexy city -- big boobs, Brazilian butt-lifts, Maseratis," Stern says. "We're trying to show people that wholesomeness and tradition is sexy, even more than a butt-lift."

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