Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
A fun fact about Congregation Beth Israel’s Maharat Victoria Sutton is that she once trained as a pastry chef. Which makes it all the more surprising that Sutton, director of education at the Berkeley Modern Orthodox shul, is not the one in the family who has entered the kosher baking business but instead her husband, Adam Brelow, a former med school student, who is now hanging out his shingle selling sourdough bread.
Meet Ground Baking Co., a Berkeley-based cottage business that happens to be both organic and kosher. (Cottage laws allow certain foods, such as baked goods, to be sold commercially even though they’re baked in the owner’s home rather than a commercial kitchen).
Brelow had an earlier calling and attended medical school, but didn’t finish, and ended up unhappy working in health care. “I felt like it was killing me,” he said. “I thought, there has to be something else out there for me.”
He had always enjoyed being in the kitchen and took a job supervising UC Berkeley’s kosher café in 2016. It was supposed to be a stopgap measure, something to do and earn money while he figured out his next steps. But those next steps began with him working the line as a cook at the café.
He sometimes joked with his wife about becoming a chef, and she warned him about the long hours, but they both noticed how much he enjoyed it.
“My wife started saying, you seem so happy, maybe you should keep doing it,” he said. So he bought his own knives and started reading everything he could.
As for baking? Not interested.
“Until the first time I baked bread, I was opposed to the idea of baking,” he said. He had good role models in his wife, naturally an excellent baker, and his mother, too, but he preferred combining ingredients freely, without the precision required in baking.
Until one day when he had a hankering for fresh bread.
“It came out pretty good, but I knew I could do better,” he said. He immediately set out to try. “That’s just my personality. And that was it; I fell down the rabbit hole. And even more intensely than cooking, bread became a real obsession.”
His wife was enlisted to critique his work, and Brelow said he became a nudnik about it, always asking Sutton what she thought when sometimes she just wanted to enjoy her bread and butter.
His baking career began in earnest at Berkeley’s Metropolitan Bakery, which until recently was kosher. Meanwhile, he continued to perfect his sourdough on his own time.
Last fall, Brelow began baking for friends, and the word spread. Soon he had more orders than he could fill working out of his home oven. A friend helped him purchase a professional oven, which is now installed in his garage. It was a “game-changer,” he said, increasing his capacity to 12 loaves an hour, when before he could produce just 12 loaves a day.
While some white flour goes into Brelow’s breads, he also incorporates heritage wheat varieties like kamut and spelt grown on local farms. He has a stone mill in his garage as well, and mills all of the whole-grain varieties on demand.
That’s where the name Ground Baking Co. came from, because his grains are freshly milled or ground on-site, and also because the words of Hamotzi bless God, “who brings forth bread from the earth [ground].”
Brelow was all ready to launch his business in March. When his refrigerator died on him, he thought that was the worst of his troubles. Then when Covid emerged, he thought it would kill his business before it had even begun, when people were isolating and wary of just about everything. But that wasn’t the case, and sales began to grow steadily.
Ground Baking Co. loaves are $10 each, but he said kosher consumers are used to paying a bit more for quality. He’s experimenting with sourdough babka now and has a few other plans in store.
In short, he believes his product stands up to the nonkosher competition, even though he can’t taste their breads to be sure.
“I can’t just survive on the kosher community here,” he said. “It has to be as good as whatever else is out there, as even the kosher consumers here have all different levels of observance.”