Baking a big break
Story by Amanda Koehn
As the coronavirus began its intrusion on our lives in March 2020, Meghann Hennen, an early childhood teacher at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood, adapted like everyone else. She stayed home, transitioned her class to meet virtually and changed just about everything else we all know too well.
Hennen’s class holds Shabbat services each Friday, and she wondered how would she get challah to do hamotzi remotely. Usually the J would provide the bread, and she had never baked it herself. In fact, her husband, Patrick, did most of the cooking at home.
Always resourceful – she’s also a painter, performance artist and dance teacher – the 38-year-old Shaker Heights resident started looking up challah recipes and became a baker.
“I started doing it just for our Zoom Shabbats for school,” says Hennen, who incorporates her artistic flair into her newfound baking skills. “… I would offer it to the families in my class. It started from there, and I did that for like three weeks. And then I was like, ‘I wonder if I could sell these?’”
Around the same time, just about 5 miles away in Beachwood, Yael Herooty began to feel unstable working in the restaurant industry as pandemic-related shutdowns became normal and expected. A certified pastry chef, she had already run her own French pastry business back in her native Israel and started putting together a similar concept in the states when she moved here about two years prior.
Although she put starting her business on hold when she was hired by a local restaurant, the pandemic made her rethink her choice. She had already conceptualized a modern, light and intricate look for her desserts.
“I kind of just went from there with the cakes and the photography,” Herooty, 33, says.
As the world shut down and slowly started back up, last year provided both women the opportunity to create their small baking operations, both run out of their home kitchens. Now, after working out the initial kinks, their businesses – Challah at Meg and Yaya’s Desserts – continue to build momentum.
Challah at Meg
Working out of her Shaker Heights apartment, Hennen’s kitchen might best be described as cozy yet set up for efficiency. Bubbly and somewhat of an open book, she’s a deft social media user, especially Instagram, @challah_at_meg. She regularly shares photos of her signature flavored challah creations as well as updates about her life and business that often are uplifting mixed with vulnerability. When you first meet her in person, you feel like you already know her.
“I’ve always had a way of sharing my story through social media even before I feel like Instagram was popular,” says Hennen, who grew up in Beachwood, lived in New York City for 10 years after college and returned to Northeast Ohio in 2015. “… I’ve always been posting food and taking pictures and sharing my journeys and being vulnerable that way. I guess I’ve taken all of my years of experience of what I know and put myself out there through social media.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, she explains. Dealing with her own insecurities and anxiety, she says when other people call her business “successful” or say she’s “Cleveland famous,” it’s hard for her to feel its true.
“It’s all very awkward to me because it’s like, I’m not wealthy, I live in a very small apartment in Shaker Heights,” she says. “I feel like we all have our own differences of like what success looks like. I feel like I’m definitely on to something, I’ve made something from nothing. … It’s something that gives me joy and helps me out through insecurities and things.”
Back last year, friends and family slowly gravitated toward buying her challah loaves, often developed with fillings, flavors and seasonings from Trader Joe’s, where her husband works. She also follows Instagram-famous challah baker Mandy Silverman, @mandyliciouschallah, and gets inspired by her creations.
Slowly, things picked up.
“I really hustled a lot during the pandemic because I had so much time at home,” she says, at first taking orders with a Google Doc and doing deliveries three times a week.
Growing up eating challah from Davis Bakery in Woodmere, by comparison, she says her breads are “gigantic,” sweeter and slightly more dense. Her flavors include asiago and rosemary, fig and goat cheese, pizza, chocolate raspberry and s’mores.
Still working her day jobs, Hennen says Challah at Meg continues to be busy. She started a website earlier in 2021 and often is booked for orders weeks to months in advance. Customers include individuals and families, as well as serving special occasions like b’nai mitzvah and weddings.
In some ways, the pandemic made starting her business possible. She was able to take part in Zoom baking trainings she could do from home and didn’t have time-consuming social outings she instead spent on her business. Now a year-and-a-half into it, work-life balance is becoming more of a consideration.
“Running a small business is not easy whatsoever,” she says. “It’s all about budgeting your money, budgeting your time.”
When often asked if she would quit her jobs to run Challah at Meg full time, the answer is “not anytime soon.” While she would like to buy a house with a bigger kitchen that includes a double oven, working out of her home is a good fit for now. It allows her the flexibility to bake when she wants without having to travel to a professional kitchen.
But growth is still happening. Last month, her temple, Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood, asked her to begin making its weekly challot for Shabbat services. It’s her first major partnership to date.
And despite any challenges, Hennen continues to enjoy making challah – it pulls her away from day-to-day anxieties and life’s more complicated challenges.
“It’s just something fun that brings joy to people and brings joy to myself,” she says.
Follow Challah at Meg on Instagram @challah_at_meg.
Visit her at challahatmeg.com to place orders.
Herooty was raised in Omer, a suburb of Be’er Sheva in southern Israel. Certified as a professional pastry chef in 2013, she started her own French pastry business called Marie Antoinette.
Several years later, she moved to the United States to further her business endeavors, and to get more in touch with the life her mother lived before she immigrated to Israel from her native San Francisco Bay Area before Herooty was born. Her mother soon followed her to Cleveland and now resides in Chagrin Falls while the rest of her immediate family remains in Israel.
“My business grew to a point where I kind of wanted it to grow more,” Herooty explains. “And I felt like it wasn’t possible where I was. Also, because I was always interested in my mom’s history and why she moved and how she grew up.”
Skilled, meticulous and affable, she began conceptualizing Yaya’s Desserts once she arrived in Cleveland. But before it launched publicly, she accepted the opportunity to become the executive pastry chef at Blu, the Restaurant in Beachwood.
But in 2020, when restaurants had to shut down due to the pandemic, she decided to become self-sufficient by re-engaging in her own business.
“Everything was showing we were going into a shutdown again,” she says. “That’s when I realized I need to be dependent on myself and be able to create and take care of myself. That’s when I decided it was the right time to do this.”
Yaya’s Desserts opened for Chanukah, with Herooty debuting Israeli-style holiday doughnuts, or sufganiyot.
“That got me started and I did really well, and that got my name out there,” she says.
Soon, she did a collaboration with Seth Weinstein, who is behind the yoga and foodie account @clevelandfoodandflow on Instagram (Weinstein was also honored by the Cleveland Jewish News in its 12 Under 36: Members of the Tribe class of 2021). Around then, she decided to focus her business on the cookie cakes now featured all over her Instagram page,
@yayas_desserts. It’s an uncommon niche she’s not seen elsewhere locally.
“I like to call it a reconstructed tart because it’s basically … two layers of tart base and there is cream in between,” she explains.
Her cakes often take on noteworthy shapes for whatever the occasion – such as a birthday number or a specific letter – and any colors or theme. They are then adorned with decorations such as macarons, fruit, chocolate or little edible shapes, most of which are also made by Herooty.
Baking from the home she owns in Beachwood and resides in with her boyfriend, her kitchen is bright and modern, yet not massive. Being used to working in a professional kitchen, it’s taken some adaptation. She has an industrial table and is still making adjustments, “but it’s not the same,” she says.
“It is kind of difficult because everything takes a little bit longer when you are not working out of an industrial kitchen, and I am also kind of limited with the amount of orders I can take,” Herooty says.
Another adjustment has been her schedule. Back in Israel, like most businesses, she didn’t work on Saturdays. Here, however, baking for special occasions like birthday parties, weddings and such, working Saturdays is essential. Now, Sunday serves as her day off. She also sets certain hours for pickups and deliveries to ensure she has enough time to work on orders and balance her personal life.
Like anyone working full time in the modern world, balance is always a challenge.
“I think the most challenging part is you really do everything,” she says. “Sometimes I would find myself at 9 or 10 o’clock at night still responding to people instead of just sitting and relaxing, or either having dinner or an evening at home or with friends or my partner. … It’s your own business and you don’t want to not be responsive.”
Herooty says she’s hopeful to expand and eventually move to a professional kitchen. But with the pandemic and its uncertainty still upon us, she’s taking it slowly.
Herooty and Hennen met each other on Instagram and became quick friends who can connect over their small businesses and baking. Hennen shared an image on Instagram of her challah and an assorted box of Herooty’s desserts that she used for breaking the Yom Kippur fast last month.
And when you make delicious treats for a living, it’s easy to look at the positives and be hopeful, Herooty says.
“People love cakes – you can never get a sad cake,” she says. “It always makes people happy, and I just love that I make things to make people happy. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me.”