Walking into Unger’s Kosher Bakery and Food Shop in Cleveland Heights, a customer might think Malka Rosenberg has a twin. She’ll be behind the bakery counter one moment, then shoot over to the cash register or the deli the next, helping customers wherever she is needed.
That’s the kind of service she’s been giving to the store since she took over ownership of Unger’s Kosher Bakery with her late husband, Moshe, and his brother, Tibor Rosenberg – 40 years ago – on March 1, 1978.
“We wanted our own business,” Malka Rosenberg said. “Once my husband started, I just tried to help out and that’s how I came in.”
In the beginning
The first year was “very difficult” because the family didn’t have any money after purchasing the store. As soon as the Rosenbergs took over ownership, Moshe Rosenberg returned to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he and Malka had lived, to ask friends, family and people he was acquainted with for small loans.
“Not even a year later, I go to (the former owner) I’m like, I’m paid up,” Malka Rosenberg said, adding the former owners, Sid and Moishe Davis, who own Davis Caterers just down the street, were surprised by how quickly the Rosenbergs paid.
Finding the money to pay for the store was only the first hurdle the family had to overcome. Passover was around the corner and the store wasn’t ready. Moshe Rosenberg drove to New York again, this time with a van, to ask kosher vendors to supply goods to the store.
“They wouldn’t sell to him,” Malka Rosenberg said. “They were like who are you ... we can’t sell it to you, we don’t know you, you have no credit.”
It wasn’t until a salesman for Kedem Food Products vouched for Moshe Rosenberg that he could start purchasing from the company. Today, products are coming by the truckload to deliver to the store from multiple vendors in New York.
Malka Rosenberg has seen the kosher options in Cleveland Heights change over the years. Stores like Lax & Mandel Bakery and kosher butchers around the store disappeared in the last 40 years.
“It was all on Taylor (Road), there was a fish store on Taylor, there were synagogues, there were schools,” she said. “The whole block was mainly very Jewish.”
Even with other kosher options changing, Rosenberg said her store stayed busy mostly because of its competitive prices and by being surrounded by a growing community.
“There’s a lot of newcomers,” she said. “A lot of people move to Cleveland.”
As the community grew, the store needed to adapt. More products were coming in and there wasn’t a place to store them, so most of the time the products were placed on steps or back corners until a customer needed it.
In 1988, the store tripled in size to about 12,000 square feet, replacing the parking lot that was next to the store. This provided the Rosenbergs with a larger store with more aisles and an upstairs storage area, including a refrigeration and freezer unit.
Although she would like to see more kosher restaurants in the area, she doesn’t know when or how it will happen.
“It’s good for the community,” she said. “Only time will tell. We don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.”
Even as stores like Walmart begin to sell more kosher food and the opening of Seasons kosher grocery draws near, Rosenberg isn’t worried about the competition.
“We get stuff from New York weekly and daily,” she said. “Our prices are very, very competitive. Better than anyone else’s. But it’s up to the person where they want to shop.”
Rosenberg isn’t sure what the future of the store will hold.
Tibor Rosenberg left the business to open Tibor’s Kosher Meats in 1980 because he said the 24/7 bakery schedule wasn’t what he was looking for. While he doesn’t plan to return to the bakery, his store is one of Unger’s largest purchasers.
Malka Rosenberg said her husband, who died in 2016, had no plans to sell the store. And she said she hasn’t found anyone to take over the store, but she knows the kind of person she is looking for.
“Somebody who will do everything and anything,” she said. “Over here, you can’t just say I’m doing one thing, you can’t. If a customer walks in asking for something, you have to help. That’s the first thing, you have to take care of them at the register, you have to take care of their needs.”
For now, Malka Rosenberg plans to continue helping customers every way she can, whether it’s passing on savings or providing “the best selection” of kosher wine in the area.
“We just do day by day,” she said. “That’s all I can do.”