Cafe Reviews

Karsh's Bakery Closes: Farewell to the Valley's Best Jewish Bakery

People are wistful about endings. "It's the end of an era," people will say when someone they loved dies or when the movie house they visited for decades is razed. In the 21st century, even a middling network television show ends with a much-ballyhooed Final Episode.

The usual references to eras ending were made when Karsh's Bakery closed for good last month. People lined up for hours on March 26 to buy this Jewish bakery's black-and-white cookies and rye bread for the last time. TV journalists wandered among the crowd, asking how to spell hamentaschen and what shoppers planned to order, while their cameramen filmed people buying mondel bread and crying.

I stayed home and telephoned Arnie and Gloria Gardner. The Gardners bought Karsh's from Jack Karsh in 1961 and owned it for nearly 45 years before selling it to Wayne Kindig, a bread baker who had worked for them since the mid-'90s. I talked to the Gardners about changing times and about how sometimes the only punch line to an era ending is a loaf of supermarket pumpernickel with no flavor.

I telephoned Arnie and Gloria's daughter, my friend Michelle Gardner, to wax poetic about how we take for granted the best things in life. Michelle said she thought people are getting used to "less than." I added that convenience has become more important than quality. We made jokes about carbohydrates, about bread being evil. There were long pauses between our halfhearted proclamations.

"I'm glad we were able to do it," Gloria said of Karsh's. "But today, Arnie and I just feel kind of sad and old."

Arnie Gardner's grandfather, who emigrated from Poland, owned a bakery in Cleveland's Jewish section. His only son, Arnie's father, eventually moved the family business to Los Angeles and, later, to Phoenix when he heard that Jack Karsh was selling his bakery, known for its superior challah and cinnamon-nut rugelach.

"My father used to say to me, 'Never be a baker!' So I went to New York and worked in advertising sales," Arnie told me. One day, Arnie's father called to say, "Come to Phoenix. I bought a bakery and business is booming." Arnie went.

Back then, Karsh's was located on Central Avenue and Glenrosa, next to Gross's Deli. "It was an old building that wouldn't have passed any health code," Arnie remembered. In 1980, he moved Karsh's to what was then the Cinema Park strip mall on Seventh Street at Missouri. Business improved.

Gloria started working at Karsh's when she was 22. "Arnie and I had just started dating," she recalled. "His mother asked if I would like to come help her pack macaroons for Passover. And that was it. Arnie hates it when I say this, but I like to joke that his family wanted us to marry so that they'd have another employee in the family."

She remembers her father-in-law telling her that people who visit a bakery want to see the owner's face. "We may have been an ethnic bakery," Gloria said, "but everybody came there. Maybe not everybody. People who appreciated good food."

Karsh's biggest day of the year was Christmas Eve. "Some of the Jewish customers would complain, 'Why are there so many goys in here?'" Gloria recalls. "One time I said, 'Hey, I don't walk into Dillard's and say, 'I'm Jewish. I want a sweater. Why do I have to wait in line?'"

She could talk like that to customers because she was like family to some of the people who bought her baked goods. "We made their wedding cake, the bar mitzvah cookies for all of their kids; they knew us," she said with a shrug in her voice. "Where will you find this at the grocery store bakery?"

For years, Karsh's was an approved bakery, which meant its ingredients were inspected by Phoenix Va'ad HaKashruth, an Orthodox nonprofit that oversees kosher certification. "They kept on hocking me about becoming kosher," Arnie remembered. "I finally did, at the end. I went through the whole rigmarole with the special pans and everything else. But I had to be closed on Saturday, and business suffered. We lasted eight months, kosher, and I finally said to the HaKashruth, 'Can't we just go back to what we were?' They said, 'No, you can't,' and they took our certification away. We didn't die without it."

Arnie Gardner saw the future coming. "Before I sold, I wanted to add an online-ordering element to the business," he confessed, now that it's all over. Before he could, Arnie was diagnosed with throat cancer. "I don't know why I thought I could go on working while I recovered from this illness," he said. "I was wrong." He offered the bakery to his son, a successful local radio personality, and his daughter, Michelle, an actress who'd moved to Los Angeles to work in television. Both declined.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela