Phil, a longtime patron of Nabolom's ordered two loaves of challah and a dozen cinnamon twists and came to pick them up Friday morning. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Phil, a longtime patron of Nabolom’s ordered two loaves of challah and a dozen cinnamon twists two days before Nabolom closed on Sunday Aug. 2, 2015 .  Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Phil, a longtime patron of Nabolom’s ordered two loaves of challah and a dozen cinnamon twists two days before Nabolom closed on Sunday Aug. 2, 2015 .  Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Nabolom Collective Bakery, which operated out of 2708 Russell St. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood for almost 40 years, shut down last Sunday because four members of the collective departed over a short period of time and the other members did not feel they could continue with such a reduced staff, according to a former collective member.

The loss of four of the 10 collective members within three months was too much to absorb at once, according to Crow Bolt, a former member who lent the business around $80,000 to stay afloat 15 years ago.

“What’s shutting it down now is not the finances, but the staffing,” said Bolt, who is now a hospital emergency room nurse in New Mexico. “Four key members [left] in too short of time to recover.”

From the start, Nabolom Bakery only used the freshest of ingredients for its breads, muffins, and sweet. Photo: Nabolom Bakery
From the start, Nabolom Bakery only used the freshest of ingredients for its breads, muffins, and sweet. Photo: Nabolom Bakery

The four members left for different reasons. Two went to graduate school, one took a job with better pay and one left to travel, said Bolt.

But there were financial pressures on the business too, although they were “manageable,” said Bolt. The rent has gone up every year, and had reached $4,500 a month, he said. The prices of butter and flour have doubled in recent years. And, two years ago, Nabolom lost one of its biggest wholesale accounts, with Philz Coffee. That had generated about $1,500 a month, he said.

The bakery brought in about $450,000 a year, and the collective members averaged about $10.50 an hour, said Bolt.

Nabolom did have other wholesale accounts and did try other ways to increase revenue. It opened a kiosk across the street so drivers didn’t have to park to get the bakery’s signature cinnamon twists, cheese, fruit Danishes and muffins. The collective raised prices, too, but only a little, said Bolt.

“There is a limit to how much people will pay for a Danish, no matter how good it is,” he said. “We were reluctant to raise prices.”

The confluence of factors finally convinced the collective to shut its doors.

“We have struggled to pay our vendors, rent and even ourselves,” the collective said in an email to Martin Snapp, who wrote about the closure for his column, Snapp Shots, in the Mercury News. “It would be irresponsible to let Nabolom continue in this way. The collective has been faced with this tough decision for quite some time now. With hardly enough people to staff the weekend shifts, the decision has been made for us. There has been talk of a potential buyer, but it is more likely the business will be gone for good.”

Nabolom Bakery shut its doors Sunday, Aug. 2. The collective only announced that it was going out of business three days earlier. After Berkeleyside broke the news of the closure, the story went viral on Facebook, with many lamenting the shuttering of a Berkeley institution. On Sunday, about 25 people lined up before the bakery opened at 7:30 a.m., according to Celia McCarthy. See video of the last day by Quirkeley/Siciliana Trevino below:

YouTube video

Origins of Nabolom Bakery

Lisa Murphy, a collective member in the 1970s and 80s, said Nabolom was started because a group of four women wanted to chart their own course in the world rather than be subject to the whims of others.

Lynnie McMasters, Adelle Kohl, Susie and Nora were all working at Say Cheese! on Solano Avenue in Berkeley in 1976, said Murphy. (Murphy said she could not recall the last names of the latter two founders.) They were doing most of the work and decided to leave when the owner wouldn’t give them a raise, she said. A friend, “an heiress,” lent them $5,000 and they opened Nabolom on Russell Street, said Murphy, who worked there from 1976 to about 1985.

“The spirit was independent, being able to make your own living and not be subjected to unfair treatment,” said Murphy. “When I got to Nabolom I felt like I was my own boss. It was an empowering feeling. We were all refugees from misogyny.”

From the start, the collective members made everything from scratch, including Danish dough, said Murphy, who was a trained chef in “international luxury cuisine.” Some would arrive at 4 a.m. to make the dough by hand and then turn to making muffins, bread and other treats. Another shift of bakers would come at 7 a.m.

Murphy said she brought a container of huckleberries back from Canada one time and used them in the cheese Danishes, thereby creating Nabolom’s first huckleberry Danish.  Another collective member, Carla Dakin, invented Nabolom’s multigrain bread. They braided their challah with four strands instead of three because they thought it looked better, said Murphy. The cinnamon twists with their unusual shape was an innovation.

“The skill level and the product and the sheer miracle that we would go in every day and produce the volume that we did, and all by hand, to this day I am really proud of that,” said Murphy. “It was amazing.”

The quality of the ingredients made Nabolom a popular place, and political stars of the time, such as Angela Davis and Rabbi Michael Lerner, were regulars, she said. It was the golden age of collectives in Berkeley, with the Cheese Board Collective, the Juice Bar, The Swallow Restaurant and Nabolom. People wanted to patronize worker-owned collectives then, she said

Nabolom Bakery sign. Photo, taken on April 14, 20015, by Raymond Yee
Nabolom Bakery. Photo, taken on April 14, 2015, by Raymond Yee

Murphy left after eight years to open the Hopkins Street Bakery. She stayed there for a few years, then spent the next 24 years baking and cooking in the Netherlands. She now lives in the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

All of the original founders eventually left to pursue other passions. They seem to have lost touch with the modern Nabolom because none of the remaining collective members working there last Friday knew any of their names.

When Bolt arrived at Nabolom in 2001 (he stayed until the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013) there were about six to 10 collective members. Novice bakers could become collective members after working for six months and paying $250 to acquire 100 shares of stock, he said. Everyone was equal. Decisions were originally made by majority rule, but a consensus process eventually took over, he said.

Shortly after he arrived, Bolt discovered letters from the Internal Revenue Service informing Nabolom that it hadn’t paid its payroll taxes. Bolt confronted the finance manager, who admitted he hadn’t paid the tax and had hid the notices. He wasn’t suspected of embezzlement, but was forced out of the collective, said Bolt.

Nabolom sought help from members of the collective to raise money to pay back the government, but not enough money was raised. Bolt said he took out an $80,000 personal loan to pay off Nabolom’s creditors, and secured the loan with the bakery’s recipes and equipment. Nabolom has been paying Bolt back, but the collective still owes him $30,000, he said.

Bolt doesn’t know what’s next for Nabolom. The group may try to sell the business or even make a cookbook, he said.

Update 9:15 p.m.: The article has been corrected to say that Murphy invented the huckleberry Danish for the bakery and the cinnamon twists were an innovation, and not shaped that way because of the pan used.

Nabolom Bakery to close after 40 years in Berkeley (07.31.15)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...