Baker struggles to hold on to family legacy through loss
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The small bakery sits tucked just off Granby Street, bars covering its windows. It looks as if it could be closed at first glance as cars zip by only a few feet from its door and a few occasional pedestrians pass its doors.
But its lone baker is still inside, churning out pastrami sandwiches, orange doughnuts and fruit cakes. Even as the French Bakery & Delicatessen’s busy holiday season is in full swing, owner George Habib Jr. said he struggles to keep a steady flow of customers.
Habib has been left to run the bakery alone, a task made more difficult when it’s paired with caring for his elderly mother. He wakes before 6 a.m. to tend to her before heading to the bakery at 4108 Granby St. to get the oven fired up. His days end when he collapses into bed around 11 p.m.
The bakery has been in Habib’s family for more than 100 years, he said, beginning after his great grandfather, Elias Habib, escaped the Ottoman Empire in Lebanon and immigrated to Norfolk. He bought the bakery’s original location in downtown Norfolk from a Frenchman in 1912, according to family history. Elias didn’t have any baking experience, but that didn’t matter, George Habib said.
“Back then, you had to survive. So the first thing that came along was that. So that’s what he did,” he said. “You come to a country with nothing.”
George Habib’s grandparents, parents and siblings have all worked in the bakery, at one point in the 1980s even helping to run four shops across Hampton Roads. The family eventually closed all but one shop - the remaining bakery in the Riverview area of Norfolk.
But the Habib family has been no stranger to struggle and loss. Two of his uncles starved in Lebanon before they could emigrate to Norfolk, George Habib said. Elias’ remaining son - Habib’s father, George Habib Sr. - joined his father in the bakery in Norfolk, making pastrami sandwiches after school.
By age 10, George Habib Jr. was already in the family business, too. He earned $10 for working Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
But more tragedy struck the Habib family in 1977. George Habib Sr. died after he had a heart attack in front of George Habib’s brother Eli when he was 17.
It was a fate that Eli Habib would meet himself. Just weeks from his 58th birthday, he passed away after a heart attack in the bakery in January 2017. George Habib found his brother unconscious, blue in the face and collapsed against a wall. He lifted the roughly 200-pound man away from the wall and tried to resuscitate him.
“He sat right down there and died,” George Habib said, throwing his thumb back in the direction of the kitchen. “I sat there trying to do CPR on him for like 15 minutes and I couldn’t bring him back.”
It’s been nearly two years since George Habib lost his business partner and brother. His voice still chokes and his eyes tear when he speaks about that day. He still refers to Eli Habib in the present form, before he quickly corrects himself.
“He was the most stubborn, pig-headed, ornery guy you (ever) saw in your life, and you’d love him like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
George Habib was more of the businessman and Eli Habib the baker. Now George alone is left to keep the business running and support his mother and sister at home. It’s a burden he carries without regret, since his Lebanese culture calls on him, as the oldest, to take on that responsibility.
Most of his customers have moved away and those that are left come in every two weeks or once a month. But the shop still has its loyalists. On a November weekday, one ordered two fruit cakes to be shipped to Iowa and another, 31-year-old Alamay Getachew, visiting from New York City made a last stop by the shop for a pastrami sandwich.
“Whenever I can, I come back here for the pastrami sandwiches,” Getachew said. “I’ve only brought one person here who hasn’t liked it.”
But even with a loyal customer base, George Habib said he feels the pressure from competition.
“The problem is there’s so many places. And so many people take it for granted that we’re going to be here all the time,” he said. “So they come in maybe once a month and most of my customers have moved. . There’s so many places. You just forget.”
George Habib plans to run the bakery as long as he can and doesn’t want to think about having to close or sell it. None of his remaining relatives have any desire to take over, and he doesn’t have any children of his own. He’s 65 now and doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“It’s stagnant - pretty much stagnant. . The good days are when I want to pull my hair out,” he said. “The bad days are when you sit here wondering what happened to everyone.”
The bakery location is an issue but the rent is what he can afford. He tried online advertising but it doesn’t seem to bring new customers. For now, he’s just happy for those who do step through his doors.
“One day at a time. I don’t look past this afternoon .” he said. “I just come in every morning and I say, ‘Eli, I’m here!’ ”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com