Without the pandemic, Marin’s new Jewish deli concept might never have seen the light of day. “Covid is what allowed Bubbala to exist,” said Greg Bernson of the Pop-up Saint-Raphael he started with his daughter, Janelle Loiselle. “I had to cook 800 pounds of brisket during Covid, and I started thinking, let’s open a grocery store.”
Soon, the father-daughter duo will take orders for Bubbala’s Rosh Hashanah menu, available for pickup or delivery at Magnolia Park Kitchen, where they’ve operated two pop-ups so far. The menu will include chicken cutlets with a pomegranate-honey glaze and standards such as brisket, kugel and matzah ball soup.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time I make a perfect knaidel,” Bernson said.
Bernson, 63, and Loiselle, 33, felt Bubbala would be a way to bond in their ‘new’ home (Bernson has been here for a decade, but Loiselle is a recent arrival), while maintaining a bond via Jewish food with the one they left in Norfolk, Connecticut.
“We were happy to start again, but being far from our [extended] the families and traditions we grew up with was difficult,” Loiselle said.
While exploring Marin, they didn’t come across many delis. (Wise Sons had an outpost at Larkspur Landing for a few years but has since closed.)
Their conclusion? “This community is hungry for a decent Jewish grocery store,” Bernson said. The long queues at the pop-ups a few weeks ago proved them right.
“We sold just under 100 pounds of pastrami and just under 40 pounds of corned beef,” Bernson said the day after their second pop-up. “We sold out all the whitefish salad and the herring.”
The pastrami, sold as a sandwich as well as packaged for takeout, was everything pastrami should be, although this columnist thought he could use a little more salt. To appease the health-conscious Marin crowd, Bernson relies on celery salt for brining rather than unhealthy nitrites.
“My husband said he was the best Reuben he ever had,” a woman overheard Bernson tell.
Bernson’s obsession with pastrami began in Norfolk, where cooking beef brisket for a barbecue festival led him to learn how to make Jewish pastrami. The three-week process includes brining the meat for over two weeks, then smoking and steaming.
Bernson has spent most of his life in the East Coast restaurant business. When he arrived in San Rafael, he worked at Whole Foods and ran a cafe at Kaiser, but he lacked the creativity he enjoyed while in charge.
Meanwhile, Loiselle had moved to Los Angeles and attended pastry school. When she and her husband Marty had their second child, the family moved to Fairfax to be closer to her parents. At Bubbala, it’s a family affair: Loiselle’s mother, Maria, watches over the grandchildren when Loiselle is working; Marty handles publicity and social media; and Bernson’s sister, Holly, works at the cash register, among other duties.
Bernson spoke of his maternal grandfather Jack, who, although not a professional cook, expressed his love for his family through food.
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“He was what we wanted to be when we grew up, the nicest, sweetest guy who loved to cook,” Bernson said. “Our coffee cake is his recipe. He was always in the kitchen making mandelbrot or the best pancakes.
Bernson and Loiselle chose the name Bubbala’s because they couldn’t find any other Jewish grocery store with that name, and the word is synonymous with warmth and family.
“We’re trying to infuse that Grandpa Jack spirit into Bubbala,” Loiselle said. “You will always be your mother’s bubbala, and if you are lucky enough to have children, you have bubbalas. It really is a family matter.
Pastry is Loiselle’s domain, and so far both Jewish and non-Jewish desserts have been offered. There are fruit tarts, but also savory and sweet hand tarts, including a Reuben hand tart, with the pastrami and fixings encased in dough. Plus, there’s rugelach and Loiselle’s spin on a black-and-white cookie: an uniced sugar cookie that has, instead, a strip of coffee flavoring down the middle.
Although it’s still very early in Bubbala’s life, Bernson and Loiselle have goals in mind. Rather than opening their own restaurant (which they say would stifle their creativity), the duo plan to hold up to five events a month, such as cash dinners, brunches and Jewish holidays.
“Pop-ups give us the opportunity to be seasonal,” said Loiselle, who is already thinking about a latke party. “They can be more fun for everyone.”
Although earning money is an obvious reason for their fleeting partnership, it’s clear that father and daughter also enjoy working together.
“I have this very weird dream that we’re going to do this, and in three years we’ll have built something that we’ll live well with,” Bernson said. “Then I’m going to travel in an RV with a smoker, sell pastrami and get a little commission on everything she sells [at Bubbala’s].”
Then he adds: “She doesn’t know.”
Loiselle laughs, then says, “I love you, dad.”