About five years ago, Zak Stern took to Kickstarter in hopes of cobbling together the final bit of money he needed to open his Wynwood bakery, Zak the Baker. Soon after, seating in the place around lunchtime was hard to find.
On Thanksgiving morning, Stern opened his art-gallery-turned-bakery (297 NW 26th St., Miami) down the street from his original spot. The place is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Saturday. Here, find coffee, the country loaves and sourdoughs on which he built his name, and an ever-growing offering of Viennoiserie and pastries such as hazelnut croissants, rugelach, and chocolate babka. The cavernous space is much larger than Stern's bootstrapped garage bakery from the so-called good old days.
The hulking Bongard oven should, once running at full capacity, turn out nearly 3,000 crusty, deep-brown loaves a day. "Our equipment is so much better and more powerful. The stuff in the old space used to fail on us all the time," Stern says. "The bread is better than it's ever been."
It'll be just enough to supply his own operations, an ever-growing cadre of Miami restaurants, and every Whole Foods Market in South Florida. It's all there for you to see after stepping through a glass door and into the bakery, which is so white with subway tiles and bleached cinder blocks it's almost antiseptic. Some bakers are busy slopping huge batches of musty dough onto tables and then hacking off and weighing lobes destined for the oven. Others are sliding loaves out of the oven and loading them warm onto racks for walk-in customers or into a field of brown paper bags to be distributed all over the city.
Most intriguing, however, is that Stern makes a point of saying this is as big as his operation will grow.
"After a lot of thinking and a lot of trying to understand who we are and what we try to be, we’ve settled on one great bakery instead of many bakeries," he says.
Over the years, as Stern and his bakery have become ever larger figures in the Miami culinary landscape, offers for partnership, expansion, and even franchising have poured in from across the globe. People from as near as Aventura and as far as Dubai have pleaded for him to set up shop.
All the while, the question of how to grow sensibly has become a near-obsession.
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"If there was one in Fort Lauderdale or Aventura, it would wear down the specialness," Stern says. "Here, you can find it in only one spot, and you can always maintain the integrity, let it shine, and try to make it better."
That meant not hiding the bakery away in a row of carbon-copied warehouses and instead putting the often-cloaked process right in front of customers. It meant training would-be bakers into craftspeople. (Some of them have already opened their own places, while others have been snatched up by restaurants around town.)
It's an unusual tack for a Miami food business. Often, restaurateurs try to squeeze every last drop out of the sour orange before the city's fickle public moves on to the next trendy thing. Some, when awash in their own success, compromise their initial values in pursuit of growth.
He put all of that in its place earlier this year when, at only 30 years old, he suffered a stroke. It's a subject that makes Stern recoil, and he usually says little more other than he's always in danger of letting his obsession with bread overtake him. His second daughter, whom he and his wife Batsheva Stern Wulfsohn — who often works at the bakery — welcomed earlier this month, also helped sharpen his perspective.
"I want to be home in time to bathe my kids. I want to be a good son, a good friend," he says. "If my only identity in life is through work, then I am in trouble."