Challah hobby gives rise to dough-making career

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Every week, Irving Greisman bakes several hundred loaves of challah, then hand-delivers them to retailers across the Bay Area. Yet when Friday night comes around, there’s never a loaf left for his own family’s Shabbat table.

But don’t cry for the Greisman family. Greisman and his son and partner Ben are thrilled their tasty product routinely sells out. Besides, they usually use their own Shabbat meal to sample the competition. So far, both are confident theirs is the best challah in town.

Currently, Irving’s Premium Challah is sold in several Mollie Stone’s stores, a couple of kosher markets and three regional Jewish community centers. But considering that the San Francisco business grew from 60 loaves a week to 400 in less than a year, both father and son are starting to dream big.

“I want to take our product to New York,” says Ben Greisman, 18, a high-voltage senior at San Francisco’s Gateway High School who looks forward to earning a business degree someday. Adds his father, “I expect we’ll be up to 3,000 or 4,000 loaves in about a year.”

That will be a happy challah day indeed for the elder Greisman, who started the business after the Bay Area’s infamous collapse, of which he counts himself collateral damage. He had been an independent software engineer working for clients like Bank of America, Sony and Hewlett-Packard, but the region’s economic downturn forced him to seek other opportunities.

That’s when both his wife and son urged him to consider making bread by baking bread.

Greisman’s wife, Mimi, is an early child educator at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. She asked her husband to bake a few loaves of his special challah for her regular Shabbat meal with the kids. Everyone liked the challah and wanted more the following week. Two loaves turned to four. Four turned to eight. “I kept on doubling till I hit 60,” he says. “It was getting crazy. Then it started looking like a business.”

Using only wholesome ingredients and keeping the process strictly kosher (Va’ad Kashrus certified), Greisman eventually turned his recipe over to the Wedemeyer Bakery in South San Francisco, which now bakes the weekly inventory.

“Baking and cooking had always been a hobby of mine,” says Greisman, a self-taught kitchen maven whose parents were, by his own admission “terrible cooks.”

Greisman’s parents were in fact Holocaust survivors, and he himself was born in a German camp for displaced persons. His family moved to New York City when he was a child, and he grew up there in a strictly kosher Orthodox home.

It was expected that young Irving would attend yeshiva and become a rabbi but, as he recalls, “between my sophomore and junior year, I read ‘Siddhartha,’ which got me to thinking.”

He left Orthodox Judaism behind, joined the Navy and ultimately moved to California in the 1970s to get into the burgeoning computer field.

He still works as an independent contractor in the software industry, but his challah business has been coming on so strong, it’s changed Greisman’s whole notion of being the breadwinner.

It’s just Irving’s Premium Challah today, but over time, both Greismans hope to expand. Currently making the rounds in the Greisman test kitchen — a premium babka. And for the High Holy Days, Greisman will be baking a traditional round challah (raisins optional).

For his part, Ben Greisman is the showman of the operation. “I love talking to people,” he says. “I go to supermarkets, set up a table, cut up a challah and ask people how they like it.”

A big part of the fun for the elder Greisman is working with his son. “Ben is the heart and soul of the business,” says Greisman. “He’s my inspiration.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.