In the 1990s, my grandmother took me by the hand to the back door of a brick and mortar bakery at a strip mall in Memphis, Tennessee, to thank Ricki Krupp, in person, for the delicious challah she baked. In turn, the baker showed her gratitude by putting a chocolate chip “chipstick” in my tiny hands. Thirty years later, the fourth generation of our family enjoys tearing apart our challah, still baked by Ricki, mother of six and grandmother of nineteen, whose hands are behind this kosher, female-owned business.
What started out as baking for the PTA became taking on the task of feeding the Jewish community of Memphis, Tennessee. Ricki created a community event every Friday at her dining room table, where she began selling her challahs. What started in her kitchen in the ’80s is now sold worldwide. After 35 years in the business, her customers are “part of the bakery family and enjoy coming in, sometimes just to schmooze.”
Ricki’s Cookie Corner, a family-owned-and-run bakery, known for its challahs, is called the “kosher anchor” of Memphis, Tennessee. But Jews alone in this town aren’t what keep the bakery going. Active in the Orthodox community, her kosher baked goods are for everyone to enjoy. “Here in bible belt country, there’s not enough Jews in Memphis to eat challahs to keep me in business,” she said. “My customer base is across the board, and I love them all.”
After the birth of Ricki’s fourth child, she gave up her office job to be at home. Like an involved PTA mother, she started baking cookies for school functions. But her desire to work led her to create a business plan of delectable corporate gifts. Her main clientele came from the Jewish community who shared Ricki’s baked goods as Christmas gifts. “My busiest time wasn’t Rosh Hashanah, it was Christmas,” she said. When the dining room table became too small for the large demand of orders, she rented a small corner of Gottlieb’s Kosher Deli, which is how she got the name, Ricki’s Cookie Corner. When she became pregnant with her sixth child, and could no longer stand up to sell the baked goods, she would have to give up the space. But shortly after, she was back at it, renting her own space, where she still bakes today, at Eastgate Shopping Center, on Park Avenue.
Ricki credits her own mother, who was “a professional homemaker-par excellence.” Her father, active in the Orthodox community, started a Torah retreat in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where jews came from everywhere. Ricki watched with awe as her mother cooked and baked for the hundreds who attended. In turn, Ricki now shares her own skills with the community.
“Friday is, of course, the busiest day.” Ricki notes, or “When ‘Ole Miss has a game.” Patrons heading to the Grove in Oxford stop for their tailgating treats. As may be expected, her delectables are represented at every life cycle and Jewish event in the community, from Kiddush at the synagogue, to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Brises and Shiva. Her sweet treats are the comfort foods of the community.
When Fiddler on the Roof came to the Orpheum Theater, in Memphis, it was Ricki’s challah that was a star of the show. Along with a fresh challah served on stage every night, Ricki taught the actresses who played Golda and Yenta how to get their hands on the challah, to knead, twist, pound, and braid, to understand the tedious process.
“There’s no longer a typical customer. It’s more like the Jewish melting pot.” Ricki adds that the business’ success is due to “taste of mouth” marketing. Facebook posts and the website read like the voice of a Jewish mother, with constant reminders to get your challah orders in advance of the holiday. While there is a demand to expand, Ricki believes you can’t control the quality— unless she can literally get her hands on it, but she’ll ship it to you. “Everything here is done from scratch with our own hands.” With family members now helping out in the bakery, it still barely leaves her enough time for an interview, putting me on hold to yell out, “I’m making chicken for dinner tonight.” Speaking with her, as she does with all of her customers, is worth the wait because she’s just as my grandmother always described her, “as sweet as the challah she bakes.”