Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery

Meet Mary Laba, the heart and soul of the the 56-year-old north end bak­ery.

The Coast - - FRONT PAGE - BY HALEIGH AT­WOOD

WHO SHE IS

Mary Laba, owner of the Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery, couldn’t fry an egg when she moved to Canada from Le­banon. Now, she can quickly trou­bleshoot the bak­ery’s pita dough. Less salt. More yeast. “She could tell me if there wasn’t enough wa­ter just by the sound the ma­chin­ery is mak­ing,” says Nina, Laba’s daugh­ter who also works at the bak­ery. With 20 full-time staff, the Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery op­er­ates like a liv­ing or­gan­ism. And after five decades of mak­ing pita, Laba is at­tuned to what it has to say. “I could stay here all day and all night,” Laba says, “I don’t mind.” She cred­its ev­ery­thing she learned about bak­ing to her late hus­band, Halim, who opened the bak­ery in 1962 and died in 1996. “Peo­ple still talk about how won­der­ful he was,” she says. Laba re­counts the story of how Halim once knew a man beg­ging for money and com­mis­sioned him to write a poem that is still printed on ev­ery bag of pita. “He was always giv­ing peo­ple a chance to stand on their own two feet.”

WHAT SHE DOES

When Laba first started working at the Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery, she served cus­tomers and an­swered phone calls. Over the years, she slowly picked up new skills un­til she was mak­ing the pita by hand. Laba worked early morn­ings and late nights with a few spare hours in the af­ter­noon. The night shift would fin­ish at four or 5am and she’d come up­stairs to the of­fice, lock the door, un­plug the phone and sleep in an arm­chair un­til the clock struck nine. Then, she would wake up and do it all again. Nina dubs Laba the bak­ery’s “qual­ity control.”

“I have mem­o­ries of try­ing to peek over the ta­ble that I now tower over,” she says. “I learned from watch­ing my fa­ther and un­cle work side by side. As chil­dren, the bak­ery was home. Mom and Dad were always working be­cause it was con­tin­u­ously grow­ing.”

WHERE SHE DOES IT

Orig­i­nally, the bak­ery was named the Fancy Pas­try Shop and spe­cial­ized in cakes and pas­tries. But as the lo­cal Le­banese com­mu­nity grew, so did the de­mand for pita. To keep up with pro­duc­tion, Laba de­cided to make the pita at night, bak­ing through­out the evening to get it fresh out the door the next morn­ing. Orig­i­nally, a cou­ple hun­dred bags of pita were made each day. Now, that to­tal has leaped to a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand, in nine size va­ri­eties. The pita used to be cut, rolled and sheeted by hand. Now, ma­chines have taken over much of the repet­i­tive work. There is also a sec­ond bak­ery for ar­ti­san breads. These changes were made to en­sure the Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery pro­duced enough pita to stock Sobeys, Su­per­store, Costco and lo­cal restau­rants and still have enough for fam­ily or­ders.

WHY IT WORKS

“We’ve been here for so long. We couldn’t see our­selves any­where else,” says Laba about the bak­ery’s lo­ca­tion at the cor­ner of Agri­cola and North. She also used to op­er­ate the MidEast Food Cen­tre next door, but now she rents it to Salam Mo­ham­mad, who keeps the small gro­cery alive. The bak­ery is es­pe­cially no­tice­able on hu­mid sum­mer nights. Staff open the win­dows and the smell of pita wafts down the street and peo­ple stop to watch the bread travel around an end­less loop on the ro­tis­serie belt. Any dam­aged pieces un­fit for pack­ag­ing are stacked out­side for passersby. Through­out the decades, the Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery has be­come a sta­ple in Hal­i­fax’s north end. And at the cen­tre of it all has been Laba, her in­ex­haustible ded­i­ca­tion to com­mu­nity and an un­changed pita recipe.

Fancy Le­banese Bak­ery

2573 Agri­cola Street

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