Adam Brenner blames himself for the demise of his family’s bakery. From 1905, when Adam’s grandfather Abe arrived in Seattle, to 1996, the Brenners had baked bread for the Jewish community — and much of the city. “If I chose the bakery instead of rock and roll,” Adam says, “it would have continued.”
Now in his mid-50s, his signature black curls a little shorter and thinner, Adam is grieving the loss of his father Joe, his wife Claire, and his aunt Yetta. Recently he had an idea: he would return to Seattle and reinstate the Brenner Brothers Bakery with his cousin Aaron, the only Brenner descendant with a knack for baking. Last year, they created a Facebook page for A. Brenner’s Bakery and announced they were “teaming up to bring the best quality gourmet bread in the world, the most delicious sandwiches and delicatessen menu items that made Brenner Brothers famous, available again in the Seattle area.” To borrow a phrase from Adam’s rock-and-roll life, the crowd went crazy. It seemed too good to be true.
Adam speaks nostalgically of the bakery. He worked for the family business throughout his childhood, his only job outside making music. “I burnt a lot of stuff because I was sitting on flour sacks playing guitar.” Known by his stage name, Adam Bomb, he started his career with an audition for Kiss in 1981 and went on to a solo career performing alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and Aerosmith’s Jimmy Crespo. “I made my dreams come true,” he says, and, in a way, he feels he followed in a different set of his family’s footsteps — that of his great-grandfather Chaim Brenner, who he believes was a Yiddish theater performer in Mielec, northeast of Krakow. Yiddish theater troupes, he says, were the rock-and-roll bands of their day. However, as anti-Semitism grew in Eastern Europe, Chaim’s sons left for America, winding up in Newport News, Virginia. A bride-switching issue — the ol’ older sister under the veil trick — or a gambling debt, depending on whom you ask, caused a rift between two of Chaim’s sons, Harry and Abe, and Abe hopped the next train to as far away as he could go: Seattle.
Abe sold bread, eventually building A. Brenner’s Bakery at 18th and Yesler, where he baked in the basement. His step-daughter, Phyllis Dolgoff, an astute octogenarian, describes the main floor as a haven of Jewish food: groceries, kosher meats, lox, and kippered salmon, as well as a soda fountain and doughnut machine. When Abe died, he left the bakery to his wife, Ruth (Dolgoff’s mother), and one of his sons, Joe Brenner (Adam’s father). The brothers split from their stepmother — either to start anew or because one brother, Itsey, refused to pay Ruth 14 cents for his cigarettes, or some combination of both — and by 1952 Brenner Brothers Bakery on Cherry Street was under way. “Joey supplied the funds to open Brenner Brothers,” says Dolgoff, “because he wanted to give his brothers jobs, he wanted them to be taken care of.” Soon after Brenner Brothers opened, A. Brenner Bakery, run by Ruth, closed, but not after an attempt to sue Brenner Brothers for infringement.
Itsey, Joe, and their brother, Charlie, became mainstays in the business, along with their sister, Yetta, whose presence in the front of house is nothing short of legendary. With her signature high heels, flamboyant makeup, and pinned-up hair, she stood out at the front of the bakery. Slim and dripping with stylish jewelry, she “brought Hollywood glamour to Bellevue, dressed like a star, and gave all the kids cookies,” Adam says.
By the late 1960s the Jewish community had all but moved out of the Central District, and race riots presented increasing danger. In a 1988 interview with the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, Itsey and Joe recall the store being ransacked and robbed. The day the store was held up at gunpoint and Joe’s stepdaughter was grazed by a bullet was the day they decided to leave.
They landed on Bel-Red Road in Bellevue, where more space allowed them to expand. This was where Adam’s bandmate, Geoff Tate (who went on to form the band Queensrÿche), would be fired for stealing bread, where Lenny Wilkens would stop in, where Joe Brenner would pull bread fresh from the oven, make a sandwich, take a bite, and pass it off to whoever was closest. By 1993, the original generation of Brenner Brothers had retired, leaving the bakery in the hands of Itsey’s son David and Charlie’s son Alan.
It was the beginning of the end, and while the exact cause of the demise of the bakery is debatable (a rent increase that priced them out of the space was the final nail in the coffin, according to a 1996 Seattle Times piece), both Dolgoff and Adam used a variation of the phrase, “ran it into the ground.” Yetta, long the face of the bakery, left the business after being told, among other things, that she’d need to punch a timeclock and give up her trademark high heels. A rumored reopening in 1997 with Charlie Brenner circulated, but to no end. The bag rights were sold: the Brenner Brothers Baking Company bread you see today has no relation to the family.
Itsey passed away in 1994, Charlie in 2012, and Yetta last year. Adam’s father, Joe, passed on in 2011, just a few months before Adam’s wife Claire died of cancer, leaving him alone and in despair with their two daughters, Blaise, 16, and Darian, 26. “We used to have 100 people at Passover,” Adam says of the old days. “Now my whole family is dead. I’m the last Brenner.” It’s not entirely true — Mark Brenner, Joe’s half-brother, lives in Arizona, and Itsey’s grandson, Aaron, lives in Albuquerque, among other various relatives — but the bakery lineage has burned out.
Last year’s attempt to restart the bakery was Adam’s hope to get back in touch with his family and his history. “It was my home,” he says wistfully. “It’s where I wrote my first song. There was nothing like the smell of fresh bread coming out of the oven.” He also feels that the family had betrayed Yetta — and, in turn, him — who in her old age became a ward of New York State. Seeking rectification for what he believes was an injustice when his father died (“I received his ashes in a cardboard box sent by UPS Ground,” he says), for Yetta, he wanted to do more. When Yetta died, he brought her body back to Seattle for a proper burial. The night of Yetta’s funeral, he saw a rare aurora borealis. He took it as a sign.
The plan was vague. Adam had a dream, but little practical experience. He turned to Aaron, now 44, who had run a small commercial bakery in Enumclaw for years and still had the ovens and the recipes from the Bellevue shop. He imagines incorporating a Jewish museum with the bakery — the history of Bellevue and local Jews. “It’s in my family’s blood,” he says of running the business. But blood and baking experience don’t pay the bills. “My dad took all the shit,” Adam admits of how much he didn’t deal with: “lawyers, health departments, unions.” But he thinks maybe things were easier back then. In the current economy, he says, defeated, he and Aaron couldn’t come up with the combination of location and business plan that would work.
Failing to find an affordable place and navigate the business side, they sold off the old Brenner Brothers ovens from Aaron’s Enumclaw spot, Adam says, and Aaron — who had converted to Christianity — moved to New Mexico to start a ministry. Adam threw in the towel and moved to Las Vegas. “I had to go where the rent was cheap and the sun shined,” he says. His voice drags with grief at the failure, at the loss of the bakery. “There’s a glimmer of hope while my cousin and I are still alive. If I had 100 grand, or a million, I’d call him and we would open the bakery. Someday, if I get the financing, I’d try again.” But he says it with all the hope of a death-row inmate looking for a last-minute presidential pardon. “It’s gone,” Adam says. “Twelve-thousand Bel-Red Road is not a parking lot. It’s a graveyard.”
Editor's note: This is the story of Adam Brenner's vision of reopening Brenner Brothers Bakery. Several members of the Brenner family contacted for this story did not return interview requests. The material above is factually correct to the best of our knowledge. However, members of the Brenner family take issue with Adam Brenner's claims. Since we do not publish letters to the editor or enable comments on this site, we chose to make an exception and publish two responses from members of the family below.
On behalf of many Brenner relatives of Itsey, Charlie, and Joe Brenner — including children like me — we regret that Adam Brenner’s account of our family business and history appeared without additional verification in this article, and that reporter Naomi Tomky was unable to reach family members who were closer to realtime events affecting the business and our family. Adam Brenner was away during the transitional years of Brenner Brothers Bakery. As a result, his recollections are incomplete, and his retelling of Yetta Brenner’s last days is simply inaccurate. Any serious attempts to reopen Bellevue’s Brenner’s Bakery have been retired with the passage of our father, uncles, and aunt. We are grateful for the many successful years and wonderful relationships with customers throughout Seattle that they built and sustained.
— Elizabeth Brenner, daughter of Charlie Brenner
Starting Brenner Brothers Bakery was a family commitment and all three brothers equally participated using hard earned savings and pledging their homes for collateral. I have loving memories of working at the bakery in my high school and college years starting with Cherry Street. I vividly remember my father and uncles searching for property in Bellevue for several years, as they were concerned for their customers with the unrest that accompanied the changing of their Central Area neighborhood. Auntie Yetta was a legend, outrageously stylish and loved every child that she gifted with cookies. She went to NY to be with Adam Brenner and told me personally when I visited her two years before her passing that she was happy. We wanted her at Kline Galland; she wanted to stay in NY and expressed a desire to return only to be buried with her brothers. The material (in this) historical addition article is not accurate, and I am heartbroken at the impression it might leave of a family that loved baking, sharing their facility with the community, and left a family legacy of supporting many wonderful synagogue and Federation endeavors.
— Julia Brenner Morris, daughter of Itsey Brenner
Elizabeth Brenner of Milwaukee is the former publisher of the (Tacoma) News Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Julia Brenner Morris of Spokane is the Chair of the Hadassah Foundation.