I first met Ari Berenbaum at the Durham’s Farmer’s Market at Central Park probably about a year ago. I was heading back to my car from shopping at the market and gorging myself at a food truck (yes I packed all that cool and hipness into one morning), I noticed his small setup across from the market on the corner of Hunt and Foster Street with a sign that said Savory Vegan Hand Pies. As a profound eater of animal flesh, it sounded terrible and I wasn’t even sure what a “hand pie” was. I wandered closer to investigate what these characters were peddling. As I crossed the street, my nose approved of the smells coming from behind the table and I was able to deduce that a hand pie was an empanada under another name. The momentum of my curiosity increased, as anyone that knows me understands my affection for empanadas. Ari and I exchanged greetings and he began explaining the available options. At this point I was already full, but the Jamaican hand pie was crying out for me to give it a shot. I grabbed one, primarily with the intention of presenting it as proof to Serena that some jokers were down at the park trying to pass vegan bird food off as a Jamaican patty. Despite the fact that I was ‘full,’ that vegan hand pie never made it out of the parking lot, because I crushed it before I got to the car, it was delicious! That was my introduction to Ari Berenbaum and the word “hand pie”
Fast forward to 2014 and Ari has traded in slinging hand pies on a street corner, to becoming owner of a Durham fixture, Ninth Street Bakery. On the surface it may sound like a Tony Montana style, quick rise to the top, but Ari was no stranger to Ninth Street Bakery having worked as head baker and production manager before branching out on his own in 2011 to start his own bakery named Berenbaum’s, focusing on authentic Jewish and vegan goods.
One of Ari’s primary concerns since taking the helm is keeping Ninth Street Bakery in the minds of a hip, trend surfing 21st century customer base, while staying true to it’s 33 year history and reputation. Ari has employed various tactics to keep customers engaged like hosting an array of themed pop-up dinners in the cafe. He has also staged events like a dress swap at the bakery. The concept was foreign to me but then again, I haven’t shopped for a dress in a while. A woman (or man, no judgment here) shows up with a dress and adds it to the inventory of dresses on a table and then shops through the selection taking home another dress. This is in a sense, a pop-up thrift shop. Ari and I spoke previously and he mentioned that it might be something interesting for me to check out. When I showed up, the ladies had already placed their dresses on the table inside and were gathered out front on the patio sipping wine and waiting on the official word to begin browsing. When the word was given for the ladies to enter, I was a little disappointed at their orderly and lady-like behavior. I pictured something more along the lines of a Wal-Mart Black Friday style rush, with eyes being clawed out to get that one fabulous blouse everyone wanted.
While navigating through the group snapping pictures I felt a little like a peeping tom as the ladies held up dresses over their shirts, twisting and turning, trying to visualize how the dress would look this summer at the Outer Banks or if those pair of jeans would make her butt look big. They sipped wine with one hand while holding multiple articles of clothing in the crook of their arms, pulling a shirt inside out to view the size with the other. One lady began disrobing to get a better look and I took that as my queue to go get a quick tour of the bakery from Ari.
I shuffled my way around a glass counter that was proudly displaying fresh made bear claws, butter croissants, cookies and a host of goodies to ask Ari if I could take a look around. We walked towards the back of the wholesale bakery which moved from it’s original location on 9th Street to where it stands now, between Main Street and Chapel Hill Street in the 5 Points area. Previously the space was occupied by The Herald-Sun Newspaper and Ari explained that there are still some old printing presses in the basement. The place is huge and for a good reason as it keeps busy selling bread to over a couple dozen local grocery stores and coffee shops. In addition to its wholesale business, it’s own café only occupies a small fraction of the space, but fresh goods have to be made daily to satisfy walk-ins. A row of huge walk in ovens, vintage mixing bowls big enough to bathe a mid-sized sumo wrestler and large rolling racks for storing bread.
All of this walking around and talking about bread was making me hungry and Ari must have read my mind when he asked if I wanted to try something out? I always want to try something out, so I eagerly replied yes and that’s when Ari handed me a hand-pie. So here we were, back to where Ari was the day we met with him handing me a hand pie but this time under the roof of his own commercial bakery, with my expectations much higher than the first time we met. The hand pie was a nice brown colored pastry with the letter G engraved on the top to signify this was a Gobi Aloo Hand pie, a nod to the Indian dish that bears the same name. Filled with cauliflower, potatoes and Indian seasoning, it did a fantastic job of partially filling a craving for Indian food I had for a while.
I glanced over the counter to the cafe and it appeared like everyone had their clothes on and I was at low risk of getting my face slapped so I snapped off a few more pictures. Before I got ready to go, Ari sent me home with some incredible Brioche Hamburger Buns that served as a perfect resting place for home ground hamburgers (recipe here). It was only my second time meeting Ari and my first time in Ninth Street Bakery but it was nice to see the evolution of his business life from the two encounters. Ari continues to experiment with ideas at Ninth Street so stop by to see what he is thinking up.