A kosher bakery sells its last bagel

It wasn't just the Magic Mountains, bear claws, coffee cakes and round, braided challah loaves for Rosh Hashana that made Simple Treat Bakery in Squirrel Hill a landmark. Nor was it just the longtime employees who graced it with banter and patience like Mae Wojtkowski, Pat Griser and the late Barb Harrison.

There were lines most mornings, the maple-glazed doughnuts usually were gone by 9 a.m. and for those who didn't know better, the store closed early on Fridays and all day Saturdays.

But after 5 p.m. yesterday, when the last kichel was sold and the bagel shelves emptied, the Murray Avenue store closed after 28 years, and a piece of neighborhood history was lost with it.

Owner Sherman Weinstein had tried for a year to find a buyer for the kosher bakery. When a final suitor last month couldn't secure the necessary funding, he decided to close the store.

"I'll be 67 years old at the end of March," said Mr. Weinstein, of Greenfield, who has suffered from a number of ailments during the past several years. "I thought it would be nice to enjoy a few healthy years with my grandchildren."

His Squirrel Hill location was strictly a retail site; Mr. Weinstein will continue to bake at his Bloomfield location of Simple Treat at 4734 Liberty Ave., which will open for extended retail hours and continue its wholesale business. An expanded selection of his baked goods will remain available at Murray Avenue Kosher in Squirrel Hill.

Sanford Danovitz was the first customer on the bakery's final day, just after 7 a.m. He has been one of its numerous daily customers, people who buy snacks for after their morning minyans, or prayer groups, and those buying for schools or businesses.

"I better get more this morning," said Mr. Danovitz, of Squirrel Hill, the designated buyer for his Tree of Life morning minyan. He said his group likely will rely on grocery store pastries in the future.

Right behind him was Karen Gusky, who bought a giant "New Year's Eve pretzel" to take to work.

"This is very upsetting," she said, calling the store "the center if you ever want to know what's going on."

But what's worse is the loss of convenience. The Squirrel Hill resident reminisced about how she used to send her children to pick up items at the bakery.

"I never had to bake," she said.

The reason was the wide selection of fresh daily items: four kinds of rye breads, plus loaves of challah, whole wheat, honey oatmeal, whole grain, Italian and French twists; an array of doughnuts, cookies and pastries; and various cakes, pies, coffee cakes and muffins. As many as 100 loaves of bread were sold some days.

Mr. Weinstein, who is originally from Duquesne, has been a baker since he was 16. He bought his Bloomfield location in 1979 and opened the Squirrel Hill site two years later right after Passover at the behest of community rabbis, who wanted a kosher bakery in the area. A kosher bakery is under rabbinic supervision, which ensures that all ingredients and procedures conform with Jewish law.

"It'll be strange, I guess," said Pat Griser, who has worked at the bakery since 1996 but will now report to the Bloomfield location. "I think it'll be hard on us and hard on the customers."

The bakery's customers by and large were a friendly group, albeit full of grumblers when lines were long and moaners when their favorite items were sold out. The store itself was worn; one of its long glass counters was cracked and repaired with masking tape, and the customer-service ticket dispenser on the wall hadn't worked for years, stuck on the number 18. A few years ago, Mr. Weinstein installed a self-serve coffee machine, but that experiment failed after a short time.

But the customers all knew that the presence of the bakery was more important than any shortcomings. At least one other kosher bakery had opened during the past decade, offering Israeli pastries, comfortable couches and expresso. It went out of business earlier this year.

While there were some differences yesterday in the normal flow of business -- one customer bought in a small bouquet of flowers for retiring employee Joanne Diulus -- the day was, by and large, like any other. Lines formed and dissipated, the racks of chocolate eclairs emptied, friends greeted one another, and children clutching handfuls of coins came to buy cookies.

Terri Naiditch was philosophical about the changes the store's closing would bring to her life. The Squirrel Hill woman has four generations of family living in her home, a total of 17 people, including a granddaughter born Sunday.

"Going to Bloomfield isn't a biggie," she said yesterday, after buying 12 dozen bagels and numerous boxes of cakes and doughnuts to celebrate her granddaughter's naming.

"As long as I can send one of the children."

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.


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