Calgary’s food scene is full of entrepreneurial success stories, but few of them are as inspiring as Sidewalk Citizen bakery. In the last five years, Sidewalk Citizen’s principle baker Aviv Fried and his partner (in business and in life) Michal Lavi have turned their bakery into one of Calgary’s most raved-about independent businesses, converting first-time customers into full-on fanatics one loaf of bread at a time.
Sidewalk Citizen’s backstory has become somewhat legendary in foodie circles and it really is a good one: Fried has a Master’s degree in biomedical engineering and Lavi is educated as a geologist and also has an adjacent career as a filmmaker. After graduating, Fried was offered a lucrative finance job in Toronto, but when it came time to make a decision, Fried and Lavi reevaluated how they wanted to live their lives and decided that the corporate rat race wasn’t for them. Fried decided instead to focus on baking and set out to become the greatest bread baker he could be.
“Aviv is very diligent about research, his background is in scientific research,” Lavisays. “His baking is self-taught, and then he apprenticed in Paris and several other cities. In the beginning it was trial and error, but then he went back and studied and kept apprenticing.”
Sidewalk Citizen began with Fried baking a few loaves of bread and selling it to friends in order to raise money to help build a library in Malawi. Before long he was taking more and more orders, baking well into the night and then packing the loaves into a child bike trailer and delivering them to his customers. As the business continued to grow, Sidewalk Citizen moved into a commercial kitchen in the SW near Chinook Centre, selling the bread (as well as scones and other pastries) directly from the bakery. News of the bakery’s delicious artisanal bread spread and Sidewalk Citizen’s reputation continued to grow.
Part of what makes the story of Fried turning down the finance job to bake bread so compelling is that it’s representative of the philosophy that he and Lavi use to guide their business decisions. The bakery’s name is a reference to Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the idea that walkable cities make for healthier community engagement. With this philosophy in mind, Lavi and Fried set out to find a second location to sell out of and joined forces with the Sunnyside Market. The Market expanded its space to make room for a Sidewalk Citizen Bakery and Deli in 2013. The Sunnyside location sells bread and pastries as well as outstandingly creative sandwiches, pizza, salads, and other lunch-worthy bites.
“What we want to create is joyful food,” Lavi says of the Sunnyside menu. “There’s a bit of a Mediterranean flavour, but the whole idea behind the deli is hospitality. If you can’t decide between two salads you can try them. Every day there’s a new meat and a new vegetarian sandwich and a meat and a vegetarian pizza. It’s very important for us to be equal opportunity to vegetarians. And make joyful bright energetic food.”
This summer Sidewalk Citizen is taking their sense of community engagement even further. They’re shutting down their original bakery location and moving production to the Simmons building, where they will bake their bread and have a space alongside CharBar and Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters. They will sell food that patrons can either take home or eat on site. Lavi loves that not only will the three businesses share the space (and serve each others’ wares) but that so much of the food will be made right in the Simmons location.
“The whole idea of the Simmons Building is to have food and energy and action,” she says. “There’s synergy between the places. We’ll use some of the restaurant’s meat in our sandwiches, CharBar will use our bread, Phil and Sebastian will have some of our pastries. So there is a flow and an overlap between the businesses. There’s also the thing where everything is being made in this building: coffee is being roasted, bread is being baked, meat is being cured, it’s all happening in one place and you can witness it, you can see it and you can smell it.”
The Simmons Building location is a big deal for Sidewalk Citizen, but true to form it isn’t really going to change the way that Lavi and Fried do things. Fried continues to bake the bread himself (with the help of a couple of bakers) and has no plans to increase production, even as demand goes up. For Fried and Lavi, Sidewalk Citizen is not just a business. It’s a way of life and an expression of what they think is important.
“There’s only so much we can make and still feel like we’re maintaining our quality,” Lavi says. “So we are turning down opportunities and offers to make it bigger because that’s not the direction we want to go in. We don’t want to compromise our quality.”
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance writer, and co-founder/co-editor of RollingSpoon.com. She enjoys exploring the connection between music and food through interviews with musicians and chefs.
Photos by Ingrid Kuenzel