When he was 14 years old, Ben Rafael started working at Kiva’s Bagels with dreams of being able to afford a car — a goal he realized less than two years later.
“I’ve been working at Kiva’s the original store since it opened in 1979,” Rafael says. “Kiva was the original baker and he baked the most incredible things, bagels from an old European recipe, beautiful rye and sour breads. We’ve kept all the recipes.”
Since taking over the restaurant and bakery at Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue 13 years ago with his brothers Elan and Steve, Rafael and the team added a bagel bar at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue and just after Passover launched a third location at Yonge Street and Castlefield Avenue.
“It’s called Kiva’s Bakery and Market. We bake eggplant parmesan, amazing macaroni and cheese made with real cheddar, no powder, just the real deal and all kinds of amazing things from cakes to chocolate bubkas to cupcakes to healthy muffins,” he says. “We make our own batter and it’s multigrain muffins, no sugar, egg whites only. People love it.”
Although he noticed the need for a bakery within walking distance of his home for some time, Rafael decided to take the plunge after coming across a for lease sign in the window of his new storefront during a stroll in the neighbourhood with his family.
To celebrate the grand opening, the bakery is giving away free six-packs of bagels and is featuring an eight-foot tall box in store filled with bagels where customers can guess how many are inside.
“Historically, the key to Kiva’s is the fact that we make things traditionally,” Rafael says adding the bagels are hand-rolled then proofed, left overnight and then brought back to room temperature before they are boiled, seeded and baked the next day. “It’s a real bagel, it takes 24 hours to really make it and what that does is that proofing and that boiling, it creates a crust on the outside so it’s crusty on the outside and beautiful on the inside.”
Rafael counts the bagels, especially the sesame and poppy seed, as the best sellers and says his personal favourite is the sesame flat bagel.
“They’re extra crispy,” he says. “We take a bagel, we flatten it and we put seeds on both sides and we bake it on both sides.”
Although he frequently adds to the menu and introduces new concoctions like yogourt parfait and thick French toast stuffed with Nutella and bananas, he believes their longevity in the industry comes from staying true to the quality of the product.
“When we bought the business from Al Sugar he said to us, ‘If you want to add things to the menu go right ahead, do whatever you need to do, but don’t change the core products,’ ” he says. “We don’t cheapen the products in any way. Our cheese Danish is still made with real cottage cheese inside. It’s not baker’s cheese.”
Over the years he’s had many interesting encounters at the bakery but he only shares a few tales off-the-record as Rafael is working with producers on a potential TV show called Hole in the Middle based on actual events that transpired at Kiva’s but in a sitcom format.
Referring to the bakery as the Jewish Cheers, he says they know all of their customers and if they don’t know them by name, they know them by their order.
“People come for the food but they’re also our friends,” he says. “Many times when we’re making sandwiches I feel as if I’m making people their sandwiches just the way their mom made them because people are very specific in terms of what they want on there. Some people say I just want a tuna sandwich with two cucumbers and you can just see that’s what the person ate when they were 12-years-old with two cucumbers, not three.”
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