Jewish bakery evolves to cater to East London’s new clientele
02/03/2014 12:16 PM
02/03/2014 12:17 PM
Foodies are flocking to London’s East End in search of the “crodough,” Britain’s answer to New York’s “cronut” craze.
“If you’re worried about calories, don’t eat them,” Ray Rinkoff said of his bakery’s croissant-doughnut fusion, not to be confused with the croissant-bagel “cragel” now popular across the Atlantic.
Rinkoff Bakeries, better known as Rinkoffs, is tucked away in a quiet courtyard in London’s Whitechapel district, where in the late 1800s Jack the Ripper terrorized prostitutes and Theodor Herzl spread his passion for political Zionism.
Alongside the bakery’s colorful raspberry crodoughs and chocolate cupcakes are braided challahs and bagels made from the same secret recipes Ray Rinkoff’s grandfather, Hyman, used when he first opened shop in 1911. A recent immigrant from Russia, Hyman Rinkoff entered a competitive field at a time when London’s Whitechapel district was the city’s Jewish hub, home to more than 25 traditional Jewish bakeries. Amid the steady expansion of supermarket chains and South Asian pastry shops, Rinkoffs is the last of its kind.
The disappearance of Whitechapel’s traditional Jewish bakeries reflects a century of demographic shifts. Clive Bettington, chairman of the Jewish East End Celebration Society, estimates the East End’s Jewish population has fallen from more than 150,000 at its peak in the 1930s to about 2,000 today. According to 2011 census figures, only 153 Jews remain in Whitechapel, compared with 2,729 Christians and 6,301 Muslims, most of Bangladeshi descent.
As Whitechapel’s population has changed, so has Rinkoffs’ business strategy. Hyman’s first shop on Old Montague Street was home to his seven children, who lived in cramped quarters above the bakery. At that time, Rinkoffs sold most of its breads from the bakery’s storefront.
“People used to queue for bagels on Sundays,” Ray Rinkoff said. “We were open early. To get a hot bagel first thing on a Sunday was the thing in the 1960s and ‘70s.”
As London’s Jewish communities migrated to the northwest suburbs and competing bakeries closed shop, Ray Rinkoff’s older brother, Derek, came on board, and in the 1970s they moved Rinkoffs into the wholesale market. The bakery now runs 24/7, delivering challah, cupcakes and danishes to upscale supermarkets such as Harrods, Selfridges and John Lewis and to major corporations including Google, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse.
But Rinkoffs has not always operated around the clock.
Rinkoff’s father, Max, and mother, Sylvie, who ran the bakery until their sons took over in the 1990s, were observant Jews. “In those days we didn’t bake on Friday night or Saturday. They must have turned the ovens off early,” Ray Rinkoff said. The two shops still close on Saturdays even though family members who work in the bakery say they are not religious.
“We’re more culturally Jewish,” said Jennifer Rinkoff, Ray’s daughter. “We don’t go to synagogue every Saturday, but we celebrate traditional holidays.”
Jennifer Rinkoff, resident “cupcake queen,” is one of two fourth-generation Rinkoffs now working in the bakery. As head of new product development, she came up with the crodough idea.
Some customers ask: If the Rinkoffs are not religious, is it still a Jewish bakery?
“We say we’re an artisan bakery, but we’re proud of our Jewish heritage,” Jennifer Rinkoff said. “It’s about tradition, making challah. I like the idea of taking challah home on a Friday and having a big meal, and on Sundays people coming in for bagels and challah rolls for lunch.”
The Rinkoffs still bake honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah and plavas, a type of almond sponge cake, for Passover, but Ray Rinkoff says they sell far fewer of these delicacies than they did when he started working with his parents in 1968. Clients are more likely to ask for Easter cupcakes, Halloween cookies and Christmas crodoughs, all of which they have baked in recent years.
Rinkoffs’ food is not kosher certified, but the family avoids cooking with animal fat and serving pork. These considerations suit their Muslim clients’ needs.
“Jews and Muslims have similar dietary requirements,” Ray Rinkoff said. “Our food is basically kosher but not under any supervision. It’s Jewish-style. If we were kosher we couldn’t cook on Friday nights, which would limit our business.”
Between Rinkoffs’ main bakery and the family’s smaller cafe half a mile away is Whitechapel Market, home to a sea of colorful saris and South Asian sweets. Most women in the market cover their hair, and many wear full-face veils.
“Muslim customers always come in and ask, ‘Is your food halal? Does it have alcohol in it?’ We’ve got quite a few Muslim bakers that work here, too,” Jennifer Rinkoff said. “They don’t like to even hold bottles of alcohol, so we don’t use it. We’d never get a kosher Orthodox Jew coming in here, but women in face veils and head scarves come in and eat our stuff.”
Sultana Begum is one of those customers. Begum, who wears the hijab, said she appreciates the fact that Rinkoffs is kosher-style because she as a Muslim can eat the bakery’s food.
She often comes to Rinkoffs for a quick lunch.
Begum’s father moved to East London from Bangladesh in the 1960s. She said most Bangladeshis are probably unfamiliar with the food Rinkoffs serves.
“We’re more into fish and meat. There’s no bread specific to the Bangladeshi community except maybe chapati, an unleavened flatbread,” she said.
But Begum’s verdict on the challah? “Delicious.”
Whether lines will one day form for crodoughs or the next culinary creation might rest with the Rinkoff dynasty’s fifth generation.
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