MONTCLAIR, NJ - In Montclair, a French bakery aids the hungry as COVID-19 bears down on local communities. Arben Gasi, owner of Le French Dad, adapted his operation to fit the circumstances. Furloughing employees, altering the production of breads, launching online ordering and scaling back on almost an entire menu of items were just a few challenges the baker faced.
“Our wholesale partners, which were coffee shops and restaurants, had to either shut down or reduced their menus as well,” he said, referring to the timeframe between the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown and July of last year. “We’re not thriving. It’s busy just enough for us to survive.”
Just a few blocks away, Toni’s Kitchen, located in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is dealing with their own sudden changes due to the pandemic. The number of meals the ministry is producing each month has skyrocketed. Where guests used to be able to eat together in Toni’s dining room, cardboard boxes now crowd the space with items such as split peas, bottles of water, crackers, canned peaches and fruit spreads. Along the walls, metal racks hold popcorn, chicken broth, small cartons of dairy free milk, and even matzo ball mix, among a myriad of other foodstuffs.
These items are the product of donations from boy scout groups, neighborhood blocks, students, and many other individuals, and will end up in individual takeaway meals.
“I think with a lot of people being home, the need of food has resonated with a lot of people,” said Stacey Cooper, staff member at Toni’s. “It’s the community, it’s food drives, it’s walk-ins, restaurants. In addition, we do receive food from the food bank and we purchase some food as well.”
On days that Le French Dad has bread to spare, that gets donated as well. On some days more than twenty loaves, baguettes included, get donated.
“The fresh bread is such a treat to so many people. It would be a treat in a regular time to receive something like this,” Cooper said. “It’s been such a great addition
to what we’re giving out.”
Volunteers package the loaves of bread into produce bags so that it can be given out individually. Anita Maureen, one of many in the Toni’s community who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been receiving food there for about a year. “It’s been beautiful,” she remarked about her experience at Toni’s. “The volunteers are very courteous, very respectful.”
Angela Brown is one volunteer that decided to help out in August once COVID-19 was prevalent, around the same time that Gasi’s bakery experienced a little more normalcy downtown.
“It’s a continuous lesson,” Brown said, referring to her giving back. She was inspired to pitch in at Toni’s after her church helped her through a difficult time in her life.
Another volunteer and graduate of Montclair High School, Maggie Herman, started helping out as well after the social media company she was working for went under due to COVID-19.
“I treat it like a job,” Herman explained. “I didn’t volunteer here before, but I remember all the cool kids back in high school did.”
Under Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 104, bakeries are considered essential businesses. This allowed Gasi to continue his dream of transitioning Le French Dad from a cafe-style pastry shop to a formal French bakery, where bread is the focal point.
“I think a lot of people realize it takes a lot of work and commitment to do what we do,” he said. “Waking up early, making sure everything is consistent on a daily basis. I’m glad the community got to know us a little better despite the circumstances that led to it.”
The bakery’s new approach to serving customers involves creating larger loaves of bread, so that customers could come in once or twice a week rather than coming more often for smaller loaves, which used to be the norm for the shop. According to Gasi, his journey into the world of baking started when he moved from France to the US to do engineering and sales work. However, the position involved too much travel. After about 12 years working for the same company, he decided that it was difficult to combine family life and life on the road.
“That’s when I started making my own bread,” Gasi explained. “Because as a Frenchman, I couldn’t find good bread.” That personal change now benefits the broader community.
In the dining room at Toni’s, colorful hand-painted tiles decorate the wall over the kitchen. One reads, “Toni’s Kitchen can change your outlook on life.” Gasi’s hope, as he described, is exactly that—to make a change by being able to give back.
Two items Toni’s Kitchen is in particular need of are pasta sauce and cereal, according to Stacey Cooper. To donate, visit them at 73 S. Fullerton Ave, Montclair. To learn more, click here.
To experience Le French Dad bread for yourself, visit them at 10 Church St., Montclair. For more info, visit their website.