For people who track the vicissitudes of bread in this town, Abby Franke's bakery in Agoura Hills has always been on the radar. For many years, the German-born baker ran Stoneground Bakery, a tiny shop in a strip mall off the 101 that provided terrific hand-formed challah and old world breads made from flour Franke ground on a refurbished stone mill in the open bakery — also many other things, including marzipan-loaded bear claws that for years operated as kid currency in this house.
Last July, Franke closed his bakery and, with a new partner, reopened in a much larger space across the freeway in August 2011. But the partnership was not a fortuitous one and Franke left the business in February of 2012. Fast forward to this coming Sunday, Nov. 4, when Franke opens Abby's Millstone Baking Company in his old location. (Challah! Artisan breads! A challah-eating contest!)
It's a homecoming not only for Franke, but for his new team, many of his old staff and bakers, and for the neighborhood itself, as the space has been empty since Franke left — seemingly waiting for his return.
Franke, his longtime friend and head baker Walter Cocka, and Debbie Vardi, a local businesswoman who had long been a customer at the original bakery, are opening the new bakery this coming Sunday under the new name. But, as the three sat outside the bakery's open doors on a recent morning, drinking coffee and discussing challah and election politics (your bread and circuses joke here: _____ ), it didn't seem like a new business as much as it did a restoration of a previous one. In fact, an old customer walked up to peer in the door, past the construction, to wonder at the rebuilding, unsure why there weren't loaves of bread on the racks, as if the year-long hiatus had never happened.
In a way, the reassembling of the old-style European bakery (preservative-free, non-GMO, many products kosher parve) in the original space seems fitting, these days when so much of the country is righting itself after hard times. “What goes around, comes around,” is how Franke describes the saga.
What is literally coming around are the massive ovens, a French Bongard deck oven and a Baxter rack oven; the baking equipment, much of it refurbished or used; the mill itself, again rebuilt (it's red now!); an enormous wooden central table, on which the bakers — many of the local employees themselves restored — will again form the loaves by hand behind the shelves and racks at the front of the cozy bakery.
There will be more shelf and showcase space than in the first iteration of the bakery, and Franke and Cocka say that not only will they be baking all the original challahs, but some new ones as well. Also their artisan breads, the Omega-3 rye, pumpernickel bread made with ale from nearby Ladyface Ale Companie (happily located nextdoor to the bakery), ciabatta, the giant oatmeal cookies and bear claws and pastries that made Stoneground such a local favorite. As for new items, look for chocolate chip and banana cookies, and some fun stuff for animals — think gluten-free horse treats made with stevia and alfalfa powder, and challah-shaped dog biscuits. Why should people have all the fun.
And on this Sunday, to mark the opening (reopening, restoration) of the bakery, which event will be from 11:00 a.m. to 3 p.m., at 1 p.m. Franke and his friends and co-workers will be having a challah-eating contest. (Sign up here.) Because if you've missed the braided loaves, often warm from the oven, plain or whole wheat or studded with jalapeños, then eating as many as you possibly can in one sitting is maybe an appropriate way to celebrate the bakery's return.