Throughout the week, families shuffle in and out of the tiny lobby of Zoss the Swiss Baker (12397 Cedar Rd., 216-368-4055) in Cleveland Heights. There are no tables, no fancy decorations, no frills. Just a small window near the entrance where you can watch Kurt Zoss work through the day's dough in the kitchen.
Flaky Swiss puff pastries and powdered strudels dot the cases, and rye, sourdoughs and whole grain breads line the shelves. When the doors opened on March 13, 1996, Kurt and his wife Barbara modeled their bakery after shops in his native Switzerland, where picking up fresh bread was the daily routine.
"My interest in general was to do a product that was reasonable and can be eaten on a daily basis, not just something for special occasions," he says while kneading.
Kurt was born and raised with the art of breadmaking. In Switzerland, his grandfather and uncle both owned bakeries and he began apprenticing at age 16.
It was meeting Barbara while traveling in Mexico that changed his path. Barbara grew up in Cleveland Heights but was living in Los Angeles and teaching abroad at the time. Kurt joined her on the West Coast in 1988 and landed a job at the esteemed La Brea Bakery, opened by James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Nancy Silverton. There he learned the ropes of fermentation and began working with sourdoughs and more complex, creative recipes.
"Potato dill, rye currant; mixing these things into bread was all new to me," Kurt says. "It was innovation. The possibilities were endless."
In 1990, they left for Switzerland, but not without a parting gift from Silverton. "She said, 'Go ahead, take all the recipes you want!'" Barbara recalls. Many of those same breads can be found on the shelves of Zoss today.
After Kurt worked in Swiss bakeries for the next five years, the couple knew they wanted to open a place of their own. They returned to Barbara's hometown in 1995 and launched Zoss nine months later.
Kurt brought along his love of sourdough. Anyone who peeks through the kitchen window may catch a glimpse of him handling the mother dough that he's nurtured since opening day. Sourdough varieties such as rosemary or garlic are baked regularly.
When it comes to sweets, the chocolate flourless torte has become one of the shop's trademarks.
For 15 years, they've made Bavarian pretzels and bread for Great Lakes Brewing. In exchange, the brewery gives them spent grains to bake into their goods.
Barbara remarks that the brewery and bar boom in Cleveland has been fruitful for their own business. Market Garden Brewery, Tremont Tap House and Butcher and the Brewer, among others, all began selling their pretzels. Neighboring restaurants Nighttown and The Fairmount both serve their breads.
When he is not traveling to learn new recipes and techniques, Kurt arrives at the kitchen every day at 3 a.m. to work a 12-hour shift behind the scenes.
"At the end of the day, when you see the room full of what you've created, that's what's most rewarding," he reflects.