Bear Silber, the new owner of Grand Bakery, slides freshly-baked challah onto a rack to cool in Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Bear Silber, the new owner of Grand Bakery, slides freshly-baked challah onto a rack to cool in Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

After buying Grand Bakery for $1, new owner of Oakland legacy is dreaming big

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Updated March 5 at 9 a.m.

Sam Tobis hoped he’d get a lot of interest when he announced in October that he would sell Oakland’s Grand Bakery for just $1. And he did. He got over 250 inquiries, in fact.

But one quickly stood out from the rest. It was from someone with Jewish bakery experience in his genes who happened to live just a few miles from Grand Bakery — so close, in fact, that he could bike to work.

Bear Silber is a descendant of the family that ran Silber’s Bakery in Baltimore. (Bear is a childhood nickname that stuck and is now his legal name.) Started by his great-grandparents Isaac “Ike” and Dora Silber in 1904, the bakery eventually grew into a chain with 36 outlets in Maryland and Pennsylvania. It closed in 1979, marking a 75-year run — a miracle for most food businesses.

Silber, 41, was raised in Los Altos and his great-grandparents died before he was born, but he grew up knowing about the unique role Silber’s played in Baltimore’s Jewish community.

He has a hard time accepting that he never got to taste the cakes or cookies that so many Baltimoreans grew up with. There’s even a Facebook group where people still wax nostalgic for the bakery.

“My great-uncle ran it for the last 20 years or so, and he would tell us stories about it,” Silber said. “I remember thinking even as a kid that it’s a bummer it doesn’t exist anymore. I think that sparked my entrepreneurial flame.”

Silber has owned such brands as Pizza Party and Powell’s Sweet Shoppe stores and was chief operating officer at Candytopia, an immersive, pop-up experience, all in the Bay Area.

Grand Bakery was opened in 1962 as New Yorker Bakery by Ernie Hollander, a member of Oakland’s Jewish community who survived Auschwitz. Later, it became Ernie’s Strudel Palace and then Grand Bakery. Bob Jaffe owned it for 18 years before selling it to Tobis in 2017. Similar to Silber’s, that’s a 62-year run and counting, though under different names and owners.

Macaroons – some dipped in chocolate – and almond logs are available at Grand Bakery in Oakland on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Macaroons – some dipped in chocolate – and almond logs are available at Grand Bakery in Oakland on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

In October, Tobis announced he wanted to sell. He had entered into an owner partnership at Berkeley’s Saul’s Deli and felt he could no longer give Grand the attention it needed.

“Grand deserves fully focused leadership,” he told J. then, noting that it had been a great opportunity as “my gateway into the Jewish food world,” leading him to Saul’s.

It was 2021 when Silber learned there was a Jewish bakery operating not far from him in Oakland. He met Tobis through a mutual friend, and they bonded over their connections to iconic Jewish bakeries with long histories.

When he read about Tobis wanting to sell Grand, he texted him immediately. The $1 price tag was a draw, naturally, but the timing was fortuitous, too. Silber had been running MyGoodness, a soft-serve place on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue, but it was winding down after a year and he was looking for his next project.

“I remember my wife was out of town, and I didn’t even talk to her about it,” he recalled. “I was still figuring out what I was going to do, and it was perfect timing.”

While Tobis was willing to sell the recipes, brand and accounts to the next owner for $1, Silber needed to pull together funds to purchase the rest of the business, including its equipment. For that, he went to his relatives and to Hebrew Free Loan, which helped him with a small-business loan. The sale became final on Feb. 19.

Given his family history, Silber said his most important connection to Judaism revolves around community and food.

“That’s the real reason why a Jewish bakery is meaningful to me, and why it’s not just a transaction,” Silber said.

Sam Tobis at work in Grand Bakery (Photo/Courtesy Sam Tobis)
Sam Tobis at Grand Bakery in 2018, shortly after purchasing the business. (Photo/Courtesy Sam Tobis)

In announcing his intention to sell the bakery, Tobis had emphasized his hope that Grand would remain kosher. Silber plans to see that through. He is also thinking about how to expand the bakery’s offerings. He eventually hopes to grow into a larger facility where he can add dairy items to the menu. Everything Grand offers now — it’s most known for its challah and macaroons — is parve.

He also dreams of introducing some of Silber’s recipes into the repertoire, like a sugar cookie and an orange chocolate chip cookie that his grandmother made, but “I also want to see what the community wants.”

He even thinks about how he’d like to reopen a storefront somewhere. “I love interacting with customers,” Silber said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

(One of the difficult financial decisions Tobis made when he bought the business was closing the Grand Avenue storefront and turning it into a wholesale-only bakery. Under his ownership, Grand began baking its products at Oakland’s Food Mill.)

“Everyone talks about Bob and the Grand Avenue bakery, and I would love to do it,” Silber said, but the challenge is finding an affordable location. “It’s clear that the brand means a lot to this community,” he added.

About 15 years ago, Silber began immersing himself in the history of Silber’s Bakery, learning everything he could about his family’s legacy.

He learned that the Jewish Museum of Maryland had three binders of memorabilia in its basement, including recipes, memos and handwritten notes. He paid to have everything scanned and received over 300 pages, many of them recipes.

“Bear is uniquely suited to this. He has Jewish bakery in his genes, and he’s built businesses from the ground up,” Tobis said. “He’s the perfect combination of operations and vision to give Grand the future it deserves.”

Tobis is staying on in an advisory role and added, “I’m super excited to see where this goes.”

Hummus Bodega, the Israeli-style, kosher hummus shop in San Francisco’s Richmond District, has closed. Feb. 18 was the last open day, but the owners are continuing to look for a new owner, hopefully someone who can keep the shop kosher.

Isaac Yosef told J. in January that he and fellow partners Din Leib and Yanni were ready to move on. “We’ve been doing it for a long time. … We’ve had no wind in our sails.” Interested buyers can reach Yosef at (858) 337-8533.

Update: Bear Silber’s role at Candytopia has been corrected. He was COO.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."