The next time you're shopping, an owner of Al Cohen's Famous Rye Bread Bakery might be standing next to you in the bread aisle.
He may have some questions – and a suggestion, too.
"I'll say I'm in the business, and I was wondering why you picked up Al Cohen's versus something else," said Mark DiDomenico, who bought the Buffalo company in 1994 with partner John Blando.
"I tell them if you turn that package over, you'll see my name on the back. The reaction is always, 'Really, is that you?' And I'll give them a card, which always gets a cool reaction. If they've picked up a certain brand, I'll also let them know that that bread is from Ohio, and suggest that since Al Cohen's is a Buffalo brand, we should support our own," DiDomenico said.
Buffalonians have been supporting Al Cohen's Bakery – made fresh in the beginning, then packaged and frozen – since it opened on the East Side in 1933.
The bakery is located at 1132 Broadway at Sobieski Street, five blocks east of the Broadway Market.
The building's blighted exterior makes it look like it could just as easily be abandoned. The back stone and brick building, on Sobieski, is believed to be from the late 1800s and has space where horse stalls once were.
The space behind the red and beige masonry walls are mostly for storage and administration. The company's 25 employees use around 100,000 pounds of flour a week to make frozen dough in a building that was added on in the back in 1984.
A plant outside Buffalo produces the company's fresh breads on a daily basis.
"We weren't bakers, we were route guys," said Blando, who drove a truck for Cohen's while DiDomenico was driving a route truck for Thomas' English Muffins when they bought the company in 1994.
"We still wonder what we're doing here," Blando said.
"You've got two Italians running a Jewish bakery," he said, adding he never had a desire to be a baker.
"Who would have thought?"
'We couldn't bake it fast enough'
A painted sign on the outside of the building depicts Joseph Cohen, Al's father, who opened his bakery in 1888, and the stretch of Broadway where he went into business.
Joseph Cohen opened a shop on Monroe Street at age 21 after moving to the United States from a village near Warsaw, Poland. He was briefly at Gray Street and Broadway before moving three years later to 18 Strauss St. He became known as "the Pumpernickel King," producing 3,000 loaves a day.
"They weren't warmly received when they moved here, because it was so Polish and Catholic and they were Jewish," DiDomenico said. "But I suspect a good product goes across all borders."
Al Cohen, Joseph's son and an expert calligrapher, opened his own bakery not far from his father's in 1933.
"There was a falling out in the family," said Henry Cohen, Al's grandson and the last member of the Cohens to own the bakery.
Cohen's and Kauffman's were the two prominent Jewish bakeries for decades on the East Side, where most of the city's Jewish population once lived.
The bakery pumped out rye bread, pumpernickel, and kaiser, bulkie and twist rolls. Challah, a braided bread eaten on the Sabbath, was also made.
"We used to make tons of it," Cohen said of the challah. "There was a time when it went right into the stores on the holidays and the Sabbath."
The bakery had an all-Polish unionized workforce then and a strong Polish following. The breads were baked in 30-foot-long ovens on golden beechwood floors until the city's health department had the floors removed because they stored moisture and weren't considered sanitary, DiDomenico said.
After the churches let out on Sundays a line formed along Sobieski," Cohen said. "We'd open the garage and people would come in and buy bread right out of the oven. It was so hot it would burn my fingers. We couldn't bake it fast enough."
A storefront with large glass windows sold Al Cohen's breads and pastries from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. until the 1970s. The departure of Poles and Jews from the East Side all but ended the retail operation, though it limped along with more limited hours until around 2000.
Ownership changes hands
The ownership had changed by then. Al's death in the 1960s saw the business pass on to his son Paul. When he died in 1975, Paul's wife Adele, son Henry and daughter Tina became the owners, along with Domnick Marzolino, the general manager. Marzolino ran the bakery until his retirement in 1988, when Henry Cohen took over.
The closing of Bells Supermarkets, one of the company's biggest accounts, in the early '90s nearly sank the bakery and led to its sale, Cohen said.
DiDomenico and Blando decided to discontinue fresh bread at the Broadway plant in 2003. The company's equipment was inefficient, and they decided to have it produced at another plant that could make it in half the time rather than spend several million dollars to build a new bakery.
Today, two shifts produce frozen bread, rolls and pizza dough primarily for the food service industry, including Tops and Dash's. Their products are sold through 15 distributors from Buffalo to Albany in New York State, Pennsylvania and as far west as Cincinnati.
It's cold in there
The frozen dough is made in a 5,000-square-foot building that was built to house a spiral blast freezer that cost $1.5 million 34 years ago. It's a self-stacking, stainless steel conveyor system that only requires about one hour of freezing time, compared to what previously took overnight. The temperature is set at 20 degrees below zero inside the constricted space.
Each week, 100,000 pounds of bulk flour are pumped through the building into two 50,000-pound bins. A tanker truck hooks a hose into the bakery's pipes and pushes the flour through using air pressure.
On a recent day, with the temperature maintained at 60 degrees on the floor, veteran employee Bill Milligan was mixing dough with other ingredients in a 1,000-pound stainless steel mixer to make placek – a Polish coffeecake with raisins.
The dough comes down from a 600-pound hopper above the mixer, and mixes with water rushed in through copper piping.
After the dough is mixed slowly for three minutes and faster for 10 more minutes, it goes into a dough trough and then is loaded onto a conveyor system to mature for eight minutes. Next, the dough is cut and shaped by bench hands Dan Yetman and Jesus Rosario into 19-ounce balls and deposited onto another conveyor belt that carries the dough into the spiral blast freezer.
When the frozen dough re-emerges, packers Mike Lorenzo, Mike Harris and Bill Slack bagged, box, seal and place it on a pallet.
Head supervisor Mike Fitzpatrick and supervisor Jeff Blando oversee production as the frozen dough comes off the conveyor at a rate of 40 balls a minute.
"I am really fortunate to have a really good and dependable team of hard-working guys on my first and second shifts," DiDomenico said.
Operating the freezer and a separate walk-in cooler doesn't come cheap, with the average monthly bill costing over $13,000, DiDomenico said.
There are also new challenges, such as experimenting with a formula for a prospective client to get the dough just right.
"A lot of times you do it just exactly that way and it works, and sometimes you have to tweak it," DiDomenico said. "I have to add a little more yeast, I have to cut back on the salt, there's conditioners and all sorts of stuff," he said.
DiDomenico enjoys the challenge.
"I liked baking and as a kid I'd make apple pies," he said. "I loved baking in the kitchen with my mother."
He honored his mom by putting her name on Dora DiDomenico's Pizza Dough sold in retail outlets. A picture of his late mother is on the packaging.
DiDomenico, 63, grew up in Cheektowaga and graduated from Cleveland-Hill High School. Blando, 61, is from South Buffalo and graduated from Bishop Fallon High School. Both live in Lancaster.
It's been a ride the "route guys" never expected.
They began by saying to each other that they'd shoot for five years. Then 10. When the five-year plan reaches 25 in 2019, Blando said, he's calling it quits.
A sheet of paper with the word "2019" went up on the wall behind his desk three years ago as a daily reminder of his coming departure.
DiDomencio said he loves what he does and isn't going anywhere. The bakery, he said, has a bright future.
"When we bought it, I told Adelle Cohen, Henry's mother and Paul's wife, that we will take good care of your bakery. And we have," DiDomenico said.
"I just see us as part of a line that began with Joe, Albert, Paul and Henry," he said. "There will be somebody after us to keep this brand alive and the history alive."