Once a farmers market phenomenon, Zak the Baker has become synonymous with sourdough by pioneering Miami’s artisan bread revolution.
And Zak Stern is the face behind it all. The self-taught baker has been named a James Beard finalist for Outstanding Baker, and several of his craftsmen, as he calls them, have gone on to launch their own bakery businesses.
The business started in a garage in 2012, and has grown to encompass everything from restaurant and retail to wholesale and catering. Today as it operates out of Wynwood, the façade is splashed with blocks of bright colors, fitting of its location in the arts district. On the menu are sandwiches, salads, soups, and of course, exceptional breads and pastries. You can also find Zak the Baker’s artisan breads at local restaurants and even Whole Food Market locations across South Florida.
On the heels of his Kosher bakery and café accepting reservations for the first time, we chatted with Stern about his bakery business, craftsmanship, and community.
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Resy: As the business has grown and evolved over the last decade-plus, what does “Zak the Baker” mean to you today?
Zak Stern: Independent craftsmanship. That’s really the core of our identity. That independence allows us to be curious, adventurous, and mission driven. And our craft, which is our common bond as a team, is what we use to connect with our community. I’ve always understood spirituality as connection. If we can make positive connections with our bakery, then I think we’ve contributed something meaningful to our city.
Why did you decide to switch from a walk-in only format to accepting reservations?
This is our first time ever taking reservations. For years we’ve managed long lines and waitlists, which inevitably created frustration and friction with our guests. Allowing folks to organize their visit has given them a chance to skip the whole song and dance and get seated calmly and quickly.
Are there any new specials at the bakery that you and your team have created recently?
We’re always changing up the menu based on the season. Down here in the 25th latitude, our bounty comes in the winter, while the summer shifts toward tropical fruits like mango and lychee. Our next seasonal item will be a pan de muerto, filled with local mamey cream.
This is our first time ever taking reservations … Allowing folks to organize their visit has given them a chance to skip the whole song and dance and get seated calmly and quickly.— Zak Stern, Zak the Baker
During mango season over the summer, you traded mangos for bread loaves, and now this fall you’re trading bread for poems. Customers can submit an original haiku about Miami’s food culture in exchange for a free loaf of bread. Why have you gotten involved in these community efforts?
We’re always looking for ways to connect with our community, and finding alternative local currencies has become a favorite of ours. The most recent one – trading bread for poems – is pushing us as a city to think about “What is Miami food?” It’s an important conversation because our regional cuisine is very much at the beginning of its life, unlike more established food cultures around the world that have had hundreds of years to find their sense of self. Once the month is over, we intend to collect all the poems and collaborate with O Miami [a local poetry festival and organization] to share them with the community.
What has it been like making Jewish traditions part of your business – from operating a fully Kosher certified bakery to closing weekly on Saturdays for Shabbat and creating special menu items for Jewish holidays – and ensuring these offerings are available to Miami’s Jewish community?
For us, what’s interesting about carrying on an ancient tradition in the modern world is allowing ourselves to be co-authors of the story, and not just historians. Meaning, we don’t look at Jewish food as a fossil of the past, but instead as a living and breathing thing influenced by the regional cuisine of the diaspora.
Tell us about the wider team behind you. How large has the greater Zak The Baker team grown to as a whole?
We’re about 85 people at Zak The Baker. Most are craftsmen: bread, pastry, savory, or hospitality. The rest are administrative support or logistics. After seven years of exponential growth, we deliberately paused our growth to focus on getting better before bigger. It’s been five years since we paused our growth, and we’ve still got plenty to do before we begin growing again.
What’s something new you’re working on now?
A lot of our work and progress is internal work that the public will never see. We’re currently in the process of launching family meal for our team, which is a big step forward for our workplace culture. The next big one is making Paid Time Off (PTO) available for our entire team, something our industry is way behind on. All of these initiatives are part of what we’re talking about when we say better before bigger.
What has it been like seeing some of your own bakers go on to build their own businesses?
It’s fantastic to see folks come through the bakery, pick up a thing or two, and then move on to either grow in their own career or take the big leap into opening their own shop. I’m in touch with many other independent bakers around the world. I think it’s important for us to stick together and support each other.
Lyssa Goldberg is a Miami-based freelance writer and content strategist. She loves telling stories about food, wellness and travel, and you can find her byline in Parade, The Points Guy, U.S. News & World Report, American Way, Mashable, Time Out and more. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.