Drive up the 101 past the city, into the hills nearing Ventura, to a little strip mall right off the freeway in Agoura Hills, and you'll find a bakery that feels unquestionably like Europe and has some of the best challah you'll find in town or out of it. Stone Ground Bakery, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on Friday, is owned and operated by Abby Franke, a baker who apprenticed in his native Germany and is a former production manager for La Brea Bakery.
That Franke, a Lutheran from Hohenlimburg, Germany, runs a kosher bakery might seem strange at first, until Franke begins telling you about his late business partner Paul Sherman, a first-generation Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv. Together, the two men created a remarkable business, a business that thrives despite (or perhaps because of) some essential paradoxes. Chief among these is the fact that Franke has managed to build a company that distributes nationwide to Trader Joe's and to some 300 grocers, temples and restaurants locally, yet still makes all of his breads by hand and grinds all of his whole wheat flour in a 40 year-old stone mill jammed into an over-sized closet off the single large room which serves as production facility, workroom, and proofing area for the entire bakery.
Franke makes six kinds of challah (plain, sesame, chocolate chip, whole wheat, whole wheat with sesame, and an excellent jalapeño), in addition to many breads (whole grain sandwich loaves, baguettes, rolls), cookies and pastries. Yesterday the bakery also began making honey cakes and the hard-to-find round challah for Rosh Hashanah. (They'll be available until October 5th.) All of the challahs are braided by hand. In fact, except for the mixing, pretty much everything is done by hand. The almost one million almond macaroons that Stone Ground recently delivered to Trader Joe's? All formed by hand. And don't get Franke started on the subject of freezing his products. He does not.
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The bakery has a cozy retail shop in the front, from which you can see the bakers forming breads on the huge wooden table in the center of the building. An enormous German-made MIWE deck oven (Franke said it took them two days to assemble the oven, which was delivered in pieces and carried painstakingly through the tiny glass door in the front of the bakery) sits to the right of the front counter, loaded with coffee thermoses and jars of Austrian-style pretzels. A photo of Sherman hangs on the wall.
Franke says he'd like to expand some day ("you see how small my store is"), but for now he's happy, churning out millions of raspberry rugelach and making his challah ("I have my secret about how we mix it; we mix it more than once") and milling as much flour as he can.
Stone Ground Bakery: 5005 Kanan Road, Agoura Hills; (818) 597-8774.