New Jersey Food Journal

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Honest Investments for Garwood Bakery &Grain

Photo credits: Susanne Davidson
By Allyson Ricarte

His menu spoils customers with pain de mie French toast, polished with light syrup and snowy powdered sugar, and tender, piquant ham and brie baguette sandwiches worthy to be a guilty pleasure. If you’re lucky to visit &Grain, you’ll find no magic tricks behind the kitchen. Owner Jon Ropelski invests in the best quality of essential ingredients and pushes them to their full potential of flavor. His devotion to honest baking resonates in his passionate pursuits for intimacy and character, giving the bread its life, he said.

“If you have bread, you’ll never go hungry,” his French culinary professor said, but for Ropelski, bread fed more than his stomach.

 “I’m so invested in the business emotionally, financially, physically. It’s like this is an extension of me,” he said. He shared his challenges with the threatened state of small businesses, establishing &Grain’s character and the rewards of honest baking in a discussion with a Rutgers University food journalism class. Ropelski has charmed Garwood and its community since August 2012. Big and burly, he’s adamant in channeling his heart through his bread.

Ropelski wants a business with personality; he’s old-fashioned that way. “You go to the city (New York City) and all the buildings have character,” he said. “Their store fronts have a history like they want to tell you a story of how many people have walked in and out through that door.”

He also channels his integrity beyond artisan food. “It’s about taking pride in whatever you do,” he said. “That’s why I give people a lot of freedom here and creativity in the kitchen because I find that that’s missing nowadays.”

Ropelski, who majored in finance, originally planned to invest in a successful lunch business. “I thought good lunch is good sandwich is good bread,” he said with a white chef coat as pure as his breads. He looks up to traditional mom and pop type shops as an ideal model.

There’s a special personal touch shared in small businesses, but chain grocers threaten the growth of this intimacy, he said. “Yes the quality at Whole Foods is phenomenal, but you’re not the guy who’s at the fish market, down at the dock or in the seaport,” he said. “He picked that out with his own hands and knows the story about it.”

Ropelski relates to bread like a parent, challenging his perception of labor. Authentic bread-making taught him patience first and foremost, but it encouraged him particularly to respect deceivingly easy work, he said, his lucid blue eyes glistering. “Originally my father was telling me to buy a business,” he said. “I was concerned about buying a business because when the owner has a real personal touch, that’s the business in itself.”

Ropelski’s gut-driven investment from the start represents a drive for integrity that will stay with the community. “I would’ve made mediocre money, but I wanted something that was a bit more,” Ropelski said. “That’s not who I am. Everything I’ve ever tried to do in my life, I will try to be the best at.”

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She's an aspiring producer for performing arts.