After five years of non-stop mixing, kneading, and baking some of Chicago’s top babka, conchas, cookies, and more, the co-founders of virtual Mexican Jewish bakery Masa Madre are preparing for a much-needed pause.
Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vasquez Felgueres, longtime friends who grew up near one another in Mexico City, will shut down their baking operation on Sunday, April 30. After announcing the news this month in an email, the pair want to make sure their fans and customers know that the transition isn’t the end of Masa Madre — it’s a chance for them to reassess the business, reevaluate their priorities, and reembark on a clearer path.
“[When] we started this journey, we didn’t know it was going to grow this fast or that we’d have this amazing response,” says Fasja Unikel. “We’ve been non-stop working since then and never had a chance to pause and give direction to the business. We got to the point where we need to redirect the business to a more specific side so we can continue growing.”
Founded in 2018 out of the co-founders' home kitchens, Masa Madre burst onto the Chicago baking scene, weaving their shared Mexican identities and Fasja Unikel’s Jewish heritage into sought-after treats such as cinnamon churro babka, tahini-chocolate hamantaschen, and golden braided loaves of challah. Masa Madre’s flavors struck a chord with locals and demand grew to the point that the co-founders expanded baking operations into culinary business incubator The Hatchery in East Garfield Park.
In the meantime, the world around them began to change. Inflation has led to skyrocketing ingredient and wage costs, says Vasquez Felgueres, and their hand-made baked goods required significant time and labor. The virtual nature of the business has also begun to wear on the duo, who say they feel isolated from their customers and don’t typically get to see their faces or get immediate feedback on their wares.
Though the co-founders haven’t yet determined their next steps, they plan to spend the coming months hammering out the next phase of Masa Madre. “We’ve tried so many different aspects of the business: classes, challah subscriptions, seasonal [items], nationwide shipping, local delivery — everything you can think of,” says Fasja Unikel. “We want to find out what people like the most and what works best for us.”
What is clear, however, is their dedication to highlighting their backgrounds and culture. Mexico is home to 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, according to a 2016 survey, with the vast majority living in its capital city. Over time, Fasja Unikel and Vasquez Felgueres have encountered a population of Mexican American Jews and interfaith families in Chicago, but say the community isn’t unified like its counterparts in cities like Miami and San Diego. “We [share our culture] all the time through our breads and flavors, but there’s still so much more that we can do to share our story,” says Fasja Unikel. “We want to find a way to share that more directly.”
Purely by happenstance, Masa Madre’s transition arrived nearly simultaneously with the closure of Local Foods, a gourmet market and one of the bakery business’ primary wholesalers. The co-founders say they decided to close a week before Local Foods’ announcement. As the pair plan their next steps, they say customers should keep their eyes trained on social media for updates.