Adults with special needs will staff the bakery, and the new owners are considering a challah membership program.
Dakota Bread Company, a popular West Bloomfield bakery known for its challah, will reopen next week under surprising new management. Today, Friendship Circle, a local Lubavitch-affiliated nonprofit focusing on individuals with special needs, announced the purchase of the bakery, which will be used as a venue to create job opportunities for adults with special needs.
The sale will officially close on Oct. 15, and the bakery will close temporarily Oct. 16-18 to transition into a kosher certified establishment. Reopening is scheduled for Oct. 19 and a private ribbon-cutting ceremony will follow. A community “drive-through” open house event will take place Oct. 25.
Friendship Circle plans to keep all 11 Dakota Bread employees. Within a month, the training program should be up and running. Once it is, existing staff will continue to bake during their regular shift, with a second shift added for training. This model will allow the bakery to keep up with the high demand.
When Friendship Circle co-founders Levi and Bassie Shemtov began sharing the news about the acquisition, the response was almost always the same. After the initial enthusiasm came the gentle, but stern warning not to change the recipe.
For those concerned, the award-winning challah recipe will remain exactly the same, promises Bassie Shemtov.
“The most important thing you can do for individuals with special needs is to fill their day with purpose in a way that includes them in the community, and this bakery will do exactly that,” said Levi Shemtov. “It’s exciting to be able to take a brand like Dakota and say that we are going to keep the challah recipe exactly the same, and give our young adults this incredible opportunity.”
The sale came about through what Bassie Shemtov considers divine providence. After running Dakota Bread for almost 21 years, owners Tom and Jennifer Wilson were thinking about retirement. At the same time, Ron Hodess, chair of the Friendship Circle board of directors, gently pushed the organization to start a bakery.
When the Wilsons bought Dakota Bread, nearly 21 years ago, they had not even heard of challah. They just knew it was a hugely popular item at the bakery they were about to buy.
Although Dakota sells a variety of bread and baked goods, challah is literally their “bread and butter.” Tom Wilson said they sell between 2,500 and 3,000 loaves each week, constituting approximately 75% of their business.
This year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they sold between 10,000 and 11,000 challahs, Wilson estimated. Before Rosh Hashanah, it’s not uncommon to wait up to two hours to purchase a bread — almost as long as some High Holiday services.
Friendship Circle’s Hodess credits his wife, Sue, with the idea of opening a bakery. Their sons Jay, 27, and Andy, 24, successfully worked in a bakery, which was one of two vocational pilot programs started by Friendship Circle approximately five years ago. The bakery along with an art program was created to fill a void in services for those aging out of the organization’s programming.
Based on the success of these models, Friendship Circle opened the Soul Café, a restaurant that trains and staffs individuals with disabilities, and the Soul Studio, a supported studio art program. However, some participants in the bakery program had a difficult time working in the café because it required different skill sets.
Jay Hodess was one of the participants who thrived in the bakery because making challah is a straightforward process involving repetitive steps. In contrast, the restaurant environment was not a good fit for him. Hodess anticipates both his sons will work at Dakota Bread.
Shemtov is excited about future plans for the bakery which include hosting community events such as challah baking classes for different age groups and various programs designed to bring together the general community with those served by Friendship Circle. Shemtov said the bakery will continue to offer teens the opportunity to come in and make a challah for their upcoming bar or bat mitzvah, something that was started before the Wilsons bought the bakery.
Friendship Circle is exploring the possibility of starting a challah membership program where customers would sign up for weekly or monthly challah delivery prior to Shabbat. If they were unable to use the challah during a given week, they could choose to pay-it-forward by letting the bakery know they want to donate their bread.
To celebrate the newly reopened operation, the community is invited to attend a drive-through open house 12-3 p.m. Oct. 25, following a private ribbon-cutting ceremony. During the open house, participants can watch a video about the bakery program, get take-and-bake challah dough and receive a take-home bakery craft.
For more information, visit www.friendshipcircle.org.
Update (10/12/20): This article has been updated to reflect the official dates for the close of sale, ribbon-cutting and drive-through open house.