As you walk through the door, the comforting aroma of brewing coffee combines with the enticing scent of fresh, crumbly chocolate-chip scones. The décor is homey and eclectic, beckoning you in. Behind the counter awaits a tantalizing array of muffins, bagels, cupcakes, buttermilk pancakes and biscuits. Welcome to NOLA Bakery, in the heart of Tel Aviv.
The lines outside on Saturday mornings are evidence of the loyal following NOLA has attracted in the two years since it opened. It's adored by locals and tourists in equal measure – fittingly, since owner and manager Talya Rasner hails from both Israel and the deep south of the United States.
"I was born in New Orleans, to an American mother and Israeli father," Rasner explained, "but when I was 8, we left for Tel Aviv. Even so, I went back every summer, to visit family. So there's a lot of the South in me." This, she said, accounts for the bakery's name – NOLA stands for New Orleans, Louisiana – and the beautiful young woman on the front of her business card? It's Rasner's maternal grandmother.
"Even as a kid, I was always helping my grandmother bake," she said. "I have wonderful memories from those years... the smells and the tastes of her kitchen. They evoked feelings in me that I carried into adulthood. And so I kept baking these American recipes, from thousands of miles away. My friends loved my creations, and they started to joke: 'Talya, you should be doing this for a living.' And the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were right."
But with a professional background in product design, and no previous experience in running a business, it wasn't going to be easy. Nevertheless, Rasner was undeterred, doing research and eventually quitting her day job to get things up and running. With the support of her parents (who are silent partners in the business) she found a space and began coming up with designs for how she wanted the place to look: homey yet fun. Some of the furnishings in NOLA were custom-made locally; others were sourced from U.S. flea markets. Still, though, the big question remained: Where to find a head baker?
"That was real luck," she said. "I was put in touch with Harriet through a mutual friend. She told me 'I know this great pastry chef; you've got to meet her.' And I did, and we clicked immediately." Harriet Sternstein, raised in New York, was no stranger to adventure either. After a few years on the West Coast, she moved to Paris and opened the city's first bakery for dogs. But eventually she became restless and, in search of another adventure, she moved on to Tel Aviv, where serendipity brought her and Rasner together.
In 2012, NOLA finally opened on the upmarket, fashionable Dizengoff Street in North Tel Aviv. Today, the mouthwatering goodies behind the counter include blueberry muffins, Mississippi mud pies, chocolate chip cookies, pop tarts and pumpkin cheesecake. Everything is made on the premises, including the hand-rolled bagels.
The menu, Rasner said, is constantly evolving. Cookies and cupcakes are decorated in different colors depending on the occasion – red, white and blue for Fourth of July, orange for Halloween, pink for Valentines Day and rainbow for Gay Pride.
But NOLA isn't simply a bakery – it also serves salads and breakfasts. A popular favorite is their Blackstone Biscuit, a twist on Eggs Benedict – two poached eggs on a biscuit, topped generously with hollandaise and bacon pieces and served with grilled tomatoes and a green salad.
I asked Rasner about NOLA's opening day, and what life has been like in the last two years. She smiled and rolled her eyes. "Honestly, I can't remember a time when it's not been busy," she laughed. “Of course, I'm paying the price! The bakery's my life now."
With business booming, expansion seems a likely next step. "Of course a part of me would love a sister or brother for NOLA," said Rasner. "Perhaps an American diner's in our future. But one's more than enough for the time being."
Would she do it all again?
"Without a doubt!" she said. "I just wish my grandmother were alive to see this. She'd be so proud."