Harbord Bakery marks 70 years
By Annemarie Brissenden
For Rafi Kosower, Roslyn Katz, and Susan Wisniewski, VE day will always be a little extra special. Because it was on May 8, 1945, that their parents, Albert and Goldie Kosower, bought “the little bakery next to the fish market [at] the corner of Harbord and Major streets”.
Seventy years later, Harbord Bakery – so much a part of the neighbourhood that there’s a local lane named after the Kosowers – is still going strong.
“We’re the only Jewish bakery left in downtown Toronto,” says Rafi Kosower.
He’s the oldest of the siblings, all of whom co-own and work in the bakery, which, these days, serves clientele – some second and third generation – of all faiths and cultures.
“Everybody likes everything, and it is hard to tell who is Jewish and who isn’t.”
“The neighbourhood has come alive,” says Katz. “It’s really wonderful. It’s art. It’s music. So many different kinds of people now, and everyone is friendly.”
Wisniewski, the youngest of the three, says the family works hard to promote a “nice feeling”, and loves the fact that clients whose “parents used to bring them, now bring their kids here”.
The trio has fond memories of growing up above the store. Basically born into the bakery, they had little choice about working in the family business.
“We couldn’t ever sleep in,” recalls Katz with a laugh. “As we grew, we all worked here. We all had to be a part of it.”
The family’s middle child, Katz remembers how “all my friends would follow me home, because they knew what was at the end of the trip.”
Wisniewski, who “didn’t understand when I got married that one had to eat day-old bread,” says she “used [the bakery] as an excuse if I didn’t want to go out”.
The store’s cash register sparks fond memories for Kosower.
“We didn’t really have an allowance…if you needed money for something, you’d take [it] out of the cash register and leave a note saying how much you took.”
Ovens were rare in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and he also remembers how local families would bring “cakes in pans to [what is now Kosower Lane], and whoever was on duty would bake them for a minimal price, just like in the old country”.
Kosower, who did his master’s thesis on the Jewish baker in Eastern Europe and the Americas, says Harbord Bakery is a model of how Jewish bakeries in the diaspora evolved over time, especially when the end of the Second World War brought waves of immigrants to Toronto, and with them a broader range of baked goods.
“Young Jewish bakers applied for positions and learned how to bake more sophisticated things, like brioche, which were not characteristic of a Jewish bakery,” he explains. “Harbord Bakery became the place for secular Jews who appreciated tradition but were not into observance.”
While the bakery remains steeped in tradition, the family has never shied away from innovation.
“Prepared food is a really big thing now,” says Wisnieski. “We were one of the first people to offer prepared food 25 to 30 years ago.”
And they’ve developed a unique item in honour of the bakery’s seventieth anniversary: a beet borscht beverage, sold, of course, in a beer bottle.
“It’s a big success,” relates Kosower. “The customers are loving it and say it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
The siblings haven’t made a lot of formal plans in honour of the store’s 70 years in business – “We’re kind of a spontaneous group,” admits Wisnieski – but they have sponsored some musicians and commissioned some artwork.
Perhaps the most significant celebration of the bakery’s legacy is that so many customers have become dear friends, a fact highlighted by all three of Albert and Goldie Kosower’s children.
“The many friends who started as customers at the bakery are legion in number,” says Kosower.
Wisnieski agrees, saying “the people that come into the bakery are so appreciative it makes it all worth doing.”
“We’ve made so many friends,” reflects Katz. “We’re still here, and we’re going to be here for quite a few more years hopefully.”