It may appear that the Jan. 12 opening of Second Daughter Baking Co., an online bakery that draws on the Black and Jewish heritage of its founders, was just the beginning for Rhonda Saltzman and Mercedes Brooks.
But to know their story is to know that it’s just another chapter of a winding tale.
Saltzman, 29, and Brooks, 27, sisters who grew up together in Delaware County, had talked for years about the possibility of such a venture before launching last month. Though their goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar store, Saltzman and Brooks are ready for the uncertain path that lies ahead. After all, the trials that the pair have already endured together — a devastating fire, the loss of a husband, layoffs at the beginning of the pandemic — haven’t stopped them yet.
“I feel like Rhonda brings out the best in me,” Brooks said.
“Mercedes and I are best friends,” Saltzman said.
Saltzman, a graduate of the The Culinary Institute of America, and Brooks, who has worked in hospitality while pursuing a degree in accounting, knew that their personalities would complement each other as much as their skills (Saltzman is the baker, while Brooks handles marketing, design and taste-testing).
Brooks and Saltzman live together and work together, a difficult proposition for any siblings. But their love for the project itself and their intersecting interests — Brooks has brought Saltzman closer to photography, while Saltzman brought her sister closer to food — has made keeping the peace a cinch.
“I don’t want to spend time with anyone else,” Saltzman said.
Saltzman and Brooks had one Jewish grandfather, who passed certain traditions on to their father. Those practices, often food-centric, were reinforced for the sisters by their grandmother, who took to her husband’s Jewish life.
Though they weren’t raised Jewish, Saltzman and Brooks watched as their father worked in Jewish delis around Philadelphia. Later, after she’d graduated from CIA, Saltzman worked in Hymie’s and Izenberg’s between other gigs as a line cook and a baker. When she was “courting” her future Jewish husband, as Saltzman put it, freshly baked babka and bagels made for an effective means of persuasion.
Saltzman and her husband, Lee Saltzman, a cook and graduate of the CIA himself, dreamed of opening a Jewish bakery together as she made her conversion to Judaism.
In 2015, Lee Saltzman died at 29 from pancreatic cancer, an episode that Saltzman recently recounted in an interview with KYW Newsradio. His death dealt a heavy blow to Saltzman and Brooks, and Brooks moved in with her sister the next year. Painful as it was to contemplate, the dream of the bakery stayed vivid.
In January 2020, Saltzman and Brooks suffered a severe fire at their home. They moved into their mother’s house, where they expected to be until June. Then, March came around, and both sisters were laid off from their jobs.
It’s a familiar tale at this stage of the pandemic: With more time on their hands than ever before, and a moment to catch their breath, the sisters decided that the time had come to make their dream into a reality.
As the second of three sisters, “Second Daughter” is solely Saltzman’s title to claim in this family, but in the minds of Saltzman and Brooks, the name is a nod to the fact that the store is owned by the two of them. In the fall of 2020, they began to offer baked goods out of their home.
Before the pandemic, and before Second Daughter, they’d sold baked goods through Etsy under a different name. The beginning stages of Second Daughter followed a similar pattern, as they advertised their tastefully photographed wares online, courtesy of Brooks, and baked everything from their kitchen. But it soon became apparent that a home kitchen couldn’t handle the volume of orders that their cakes, cookies and focaccia breads attracted.
In January, they moved into a commercial kitchen at the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, debuting a new website and social media presence. As of now, the sisters offer their baked goods via pickup and delivery as the dream of a storefront — and a few more Jewish pastries for the menu — shimmers in the distance.
“I dare say, ‘I plan’ or ‘I hope’ to that,” said Saltzman, “but that’s something I would like to do.”