The oven at Mid-East Bakery in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is as big as some New York City apartments. Its shiny veneer has faded from decades of use, but the oven — in operation since the ’50s, if not earlier — still works. Gas burners push the oven’s temperature to over 800 degrees, which produces lightly charred, fluffy rounds of pita bread in less than two minutes.
“We take pride in our bread,” Marie Aflak, the owner, told me. “It’s hand-crafted. Every single piece is hand-rolled.” The quality speaks for itself. The bakery supplies its specialty pita to Tanoreen, Rawia Bishara’s acclaimed Middle Eastern restaurant just a few blocks away.
Aflak has been running the bakery alongside her husband, Tony, for the past year. But her father, Antoine, started the business in 1976. “He’s an ideal immigrant story,” Aflak said. “He came with nothing and made something.”
In 1970, Aflak’s father moved to Brooklyn from a small town in northern Lebanon to work at Damascus Bakery, famous for its pillowy pita breads (that bakery was founded in 1930 and currently operates out of factories in Vinegar Hill and Newark). After five years of baking at Damascus, he decided he would start his own business to support his growing family. Mid-East Bakery opened in January 1976.
It was a family affair since day one. Aflak’s mother, Frangie, made staples like spinach pies and hummus and traditional sweets like walnut baklava and melt-in-your-mouth graybeh, Lebanese butter cookies. Everyone had something to contribute, but Aflak was especially keen to learn her mother’s recipes and work with food.
Aflak’s love for cooking led her to culinary school and then on to various catering jobs, away from the family business. But the idea of working at the bakery still lingered in the back of her mind. She would move to Antigua (where she met Tony, who is of Lebanese decent), get married and start a family before the opportunity to take over the bakery materialized.
By the end of 2018, Aflak’s parents were ready to retire (her brother, Michael, had been commuting from New Jersey to help run the shop but he, too, was ready to move on). Aflak was back in Brooklyn with her family, now a party of four, and ready for the responsibility.
At first, working with the dough proved to be the steepest learning curve. Neither Marie nor Tony were trained bakers, and the nuances of dough proofing and oven temperatures were the most surprising challenges. “Now we know what the weather is like by the yeast activation,” Aflak joked. Predicting demand was also an inexact science; some days the bakery would run out of bread before noon.
A year in, the Aflaks say they have much to be grateful for: Business has been steady and the couple is devoting more energy to growing their customer base through diverse distribution channels, starting with the grocery stores nearby.
The pita bread is by far the best-selling product at Mid-East Bakery, but the dough is fashioned into a variety of other products, too. There is bread brushed with olive oil and caked with earthy-tangy Lebanese za’atar. Dough is cut into quarters and baked until it puffs into little pita parcels. And thick rings coated in pearly sesame seeds lie somewhere between a bagel and a Turkish simit. These days, bags of extremely snackable za’atar pita chips are in high demand.
The shop is also a mini grocery with imported briny Greek olives, silky Lebanese tahini and springy Syrian cheese. Keeping her mother’s work going, Aflak stocks the cases with mezze like hummus, baba ghanoush and piles of pies. I was lucky enough to walk into the bakery as trays of cooling spinach, cheese and meat pies flooded the cozy shop with their toasted, yeasty scent.
In the beginning, the bakery’s customers were mostly immigrants from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. Owing to the neighborhood’s shifting demographics, that share is now less than a quarter of the business. Still, the Aflaks treat everyone like family. And in some ways, the most loyal customers are just as close. “They have seen me grow up,” Aflak explains. “And now I’m taking care of their grandkids.”