How do you keep a bakery in business for 104 years? That's the question I came to Rinkoff's hoping to answer. Founded by Hyman Rinkoff, a Ukranian Jew, in 1911, the bakery has been a fixture of London's Whitechapel neighbourhood since. Its origins are a reminder of a period when many Jews immigrated to London, often fleeing persecution. The business has seen four generations and three different locations.
Ray, the grandson of Hyman Rinkoff, and Jennifer, Ray's daughter, took me behind the scenes. I also met Derek, Ray's brother, and Lloyd, Derek's son. What I learned from spending the morning with this generous, hardworking family is that their success has been the product of both talent and a willingness to adapt. Back in the 1970s this meant Ray and Derek moving the business into the wholesale market. Today it's meant letting the younger generation take the lead with new recipes such as the crodough – Jennifer's take on the infamous pastry portmanteau, the cronut. She also understands the power of showcasing product and process, which she does splendidly on social media (and by letting nosy bloggers like me come poking around.) "10 years ago they wouldn't have wanted you to come back here," she told me as we weaved through the industrial-sized ovens and vats of sweet dough.
I'd also posit that a large part of their success is the visible pleasure they take in making people happy – I watched Ray joyfully commander some counter space in the back office to construct a two-tiered crodough cake for a customer who'd requested one, rather last minute, for her partner's birthday. "We do customized anything," he explained. "People can call up and ask for whatever they want, and we'll make it happen."
"When the Kray twins were in prison, their friends used to stop by and pick up salmon beigels on their way to go and see them" – Ray
If you want to be a baker, or a pastry chef, or a chef, you have got to be passionate. Otherwise, forget about it. You’ve got to have it running through you. I can walk into a room full of bakers and straight away I'll know who is passionate and who is just here to get by.
Hyman, my grandfather, was a Ukrainian Jew and a master baker. He fled to Whitechapel in 1906 because there were a lot of other families here already. A lot of them opened up bakeries and delicatessens. Hyman opened the original shop in 1911 on Old Montague Street, opposite the Black Lion Yard. My grandfather, my father and the whole family lived upstairs, and the bakery was downstairs. The Black Lion Yard was fantastic – there was a dairy with a few cows, and on the right-hand side were all the jewelers where the Jewish people would get their candlesticks and diamond rings. I remember holding tight onto my mother’s hand while she did the weekly shop on Petticoat Lane Market. There was a man there who just sold cucumbers, and another who just sold lemons.
I was 15 when I decided to leave school. I wasn’t very academic but I was quite good with my hands. At the time our family bakery was mainly just serving the Jewish community – Danishes, pastries, strudels, cakes for Passover – and I wanted to study in Switzerland to be a patissier. I went to work at this place called Floris in the West End but a year or so later my dad asked if I could join the family business. My brother Derek joined us in 1976. The Jewish community had started to dwindle, and the supermarkets were coming in. Our retail business started to decline, so we began moving things towards wholesale. We used to be 5% wholesale, 95% retail – now it’s the other way around.
In 1979 we bought the place on Vallance Road, home of the Kray twins. When the twins were in prison their friends used to stop by and pick up salmon beigels on their way to go and see them. Derek’s son Lloyd joined us in 1982; he was only 13 at the time. And then Jenny in 2007. She’s really given the shop a fantastic boost, especially creating and marketing the crodoughs. She’s always putting stuff up on the Instagram and all that media; not that I know a lot about it, I’m a bit old fashioned.
"We wouldn't be here if we were letting people down"
What’s it like working together as a family? Listen, we have our disagreements but we move on. I’ll tell you something – if you are passionate about what you do and you have all your family here, then any problem will get sorted one way or another. People come to us because we’re professionals. We know what we’re doing and we don’t let people down. That’s why we’ve been in business for 104 years – we wouldn’t be here if we were letting people down. It’s not easy; we get in very early in the morning. We have things coming out of the oven all day and all night. We’re doing over 200 deliveries a day: making, packing, sending out, with no mistakes.
"Baking is meticulous, precise, and frustrating. But It's so rewarding" – Jennifer
I have a big sweet tooth, and I love cake. I get a lot of inspiration from America. I feel like the baking market is way ahead there. I’m often in New York, where we have family. I’m always experimenting with new things and trying to see what our customers might like next. We just made a new salted caramel brownie this morning, actually. I think it’s going down quite well.
Working together as a family, you have a lot of trust. Our bakers feel like part of that family, too. A lot of them have stayed with us for years and worked their way up. There’s a funny story actually – so I spent about two weeks experimenting and trying to get the crodough right. I was in the bakery all the time and it wasn’t really working. One day I asked one of the cleaners to keep an eye on the frying oil while I helped a customer; when I came back he’d fried the dough and it looked amazing. I was like, “wait, how did you do that?” Now he’s the chief fryer!
Cooking? It’s easy; you just chuck everything in. Baking is meticulous, precise, and frustrating. But it’s so rewarding.
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All photos taken by Feeder.