Melissa Sostrin, owner of Sweets Melissa and Sons, is one of two women-owned challah baking companies in Nashville.
Baking challah is a time-consuming endeavor. It takes planning, organization, and plain old elbow grease to create the mouth-watering, fragrant loaf that graces Shabbat and holiday tables, and sits beneath tangy barbecue sandwiches. Challah can sometimes be found locally at commercial grocery stores, but most is not kosher. For that, it is necessary to bake at home, order from an online kosher bakery, or connect with a local kosher baker. Two local women entrepreneurs fall into that last category, each from different generations, and with a different approach to challah and to business.
Melissa Sostrin has been baking challah in Nashville for the last 11 years. She relocated to Nashville from New York in 2010 during a difficult life transition. Recently divorced and a single mom to two young sons, she was encouraged to make the move by two of her six siblings who were then living in Nashville. “I needed a change, and they said life would be easier for us here,” she says. Sostrin worked in the non-profit sector in New York City, most recently for the American Jewish Committee. But she always had a passion for cooking and baking. “Before Covid, I would have 20 to 30 people for Hanukkah, Sukkot, and Pesach.” Her ex-husband was also a chef, and she says she learned the basics from watching him.
Liza’s Loaves is owned by Liza Moskowitz, one of two women challah bakers.
At the other end of the professional spectrum, is Liza Moskowitz, a recent graduate of the Owen School of Business at Vanderbilt University. The recently married Moskowitz, relocated to Nashville from Chicago, where it was easy to find all types of challahs. During the Covid19 pandemic shutdown, Moskowitz began experimenting with baking. “The pandemic shifted how I view the world,” she says, “I realized I needed the ritual of baking to mark time.” Upon arriving at Vanderbilt, her loaves became popular with her classmates, most of whom were not Jewish. “I’ve always been a leader, focused on community, wherever that is,” she says. She relies on her business education to help guide her decision making. “Going to business school gave me a level of confidence in knowing what questions to ask in building a business.”
Each challah baker has her own twist on their challahs, and each has a different approach to her business. Sostrin admits she does not have a formal business plan, and clientele for her, Sweets Melissa and Sons, has grown mostly from word of mouth. “One of the rabbis in town asked me about baking challahs for a school fundraiser, and that’s basically how it started,” she says. She taught challah and hamantaschen baking for religion classes at Belmont University, too. She even receives orders from non-Jewish neighbors who want challahs for Christmas.
After receiving her MBA at Owen, Moskowitz began what is now her day job as a consultant at Deloitte. And while there are definite rewards that come with working in the corporate sector, she admits it is no longer her passion. “I dream about becoming a challah baker full time,” she says. She believes she is filling a void in the marketplace where most challahs are baked by caterers or bakeries. “No one has specialized in challah on a commercial level. The Jewish community knows about challah, but everyone loves challah.” Now it the early stages, Liza’s Loaves is building from the ground up, with a website and a schedule for making and receiving orders. Her long-term goal is to open a brick-and-mortar bakery specializing in challahs.
Both Sostrin and Moskowitz are learning about the challenges women in business face. “There is a lot of hazing in kitchens,” says Sostrin, “I’ve been pretty lucky in that way because I work in safe spaces where I am appreciated. But there is still a lot of abuse of women in may places.” There are also challenges of scale, particularly since the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc on the supply chain. “It is more complicated since Covid. Materials are not always available when I need them,” says Sostrin. Managing time and deadlines is another challenge. “I have empathy for small business owners,” says Moskowitz, “It’s hard to prioritize time and energy.”
Each challah baker has different goals for expanding her business. Sostrin’s is a family affair. Over the years, her eponymous “sons,” Zack and Matt, have worked in the kitchen and delivered hundreds of challahs. Her younger brother is also a key player in creating new recipes. “He is my head of R and D,” she says, “I was always more of a follow the recipe type of person, he is trial and error.” It is her brother who is responsible for expanding her line of baked goods to cookies, brownies, and scones. She has no plans to open a store, citing the expense and limitations. But she is excited to continue to offer kosher challahs and desserts, and is branching into catering, too.
Moskowitz loaves are not currently kosher, and she uses a dairy recipe, but she is working with Congregation Micah to use their kitchen and to become certified Kosher. When asked about her unique twist on challah, she says she began with a recipe that appeared in the Temple Beth El cookbook in her hometown of Houston. “The recipe belonged to my best friend’s mom, but I found out she left out one key ingredient: bread flour. I guess she didn’t want people to have the real recipe,” she says. Moskowitz likes the taste and texture of dairy challah, and although it may be limiting for a Shabbat chicken dinner, she says there are so many other opportunities to eat good challah. “This experience is a crash course in confidence. I’m learning not to apologize.”
Over the last decade, Nashville has seen continuous year-over-year growth in small business ownership. That’s according to a recent report from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office. And much of that growth has been attributed to women business owners. Both Moskowitz and Sostrin believe they have a recipe for success, and each talk about a special ingredient that fuels them: the spiritual connection to the product. “I believe life is short and we have to use the special things. I want to keep the sanctity of why challah is special, but we should eat it every day,” says Moskowitz. She even includes a mini challah in each loaf so the customer can eat it right away and not wait for a special meal to enjoy the challah. Sostrin
agrees that baking challah is a sacred endeavor. “I never say ‘no’ to someone who needs challah. If someone calls Thursday night, I’ll make sure they have challah for Shabbat.”