Alon Balshan began his culinary journey more than a quarter-century ago when he moved to the United States from Israel. He had a vision to open a restaurant and, with the help of wife Janine, turned his passion for food into an Atlanta treasure, Alon’s Bakery, where the smell of freshly baked bread and the sound of light jazz transport visitors to the Old World.
“This is not what I had in mind. I don’t know what I had in mind, but as far as the land of opportunity, it’s all happening for me and was easier than I thought in some ways,” he said this month while celebrating his eatery’s 25th anniversary.
He and Janine met 26 years ago when Alon was working at Murphy’s, a restaurant next door to his Virginia-Highland location. Janine said something about him caught her eye. “My friends told me about him and set me up. He was working at Murphy’s, and I wanted to marry him, so I would go in and eat carrot cake every day. … I hate carrot cake, but I knew he was the one.”
It took a bit longer for Alon to decide — a characteristic that put Janine at ease. “He never makes rash decisions.”
The two married three years later, and Janine became his business partner, helping him strategize growth. When the time came for the entrepreneur to buy his first restaurant, a 1,300-square-foot space, Randy Feinberg recognized Alon’s integrity and sold to him on a handshake.
“We started in a peanut of a place and then decided we wanted to expand it. He said he wanted to do cheeses and wines and expand the dessert,” Janine said. “So we expanded the kitchen and began going to food shows to find out what exactly having a cheese counter meant.”
He owned the Virginia-Highland location for more than 15 years before adding a Dunwoody location nine years ago at the beginning of the recession. But he persisted through the challenging times.
“I’m a visionary. That’s the biggest thrill, is to see something in my head and make it actually happen,” Alon said.
The cafe evolved into a cozy place with a character unique to the Atlanta dining scene. The hardwood fixtures and flooring combined with quaint tables give it an international ambience that is unpretentious and inviting.
“I’ve always been in markets and shops around the world, like several places in Europe and Israel. I grew up with this stuff,” Alon said. “There was a cheese counter where I grew up. In Europe when I went, it was fascinating. I love markets. Basically, what I’ve done is built what I love.”
He knows exactly how he wants things done, and when he decided to make sandwiches to complement the desserts and coffee, “the only way to make the best sandwich was to make his own bread.”
Alon advertised for a bread baker. Leon Dallas responded and was hired two weeks later.
Dallas attended the 25th anniversary celebration with his two daughters, Jayla and Jade, who both work at Alon’s as cashiers.
“When I first started working here, my baby was about that size,” Dallas said, pointing to his 7-month-old granddaughter. “We had a personality conflict at first. He knew how he wanted things done, but we persevered. I think he’s done a great job, and I’m proud of him.”
At over 6 feet tall, Alon oversees all aspects of his restaurant. He ducks as he enters the kitchen of the Dunwoody location, which makes 4,000 macaroons a day for sale at Whole Foods locations across the nation. His specialties, such as eclairs and chocolate-chip cookies with pecans, are made to the highest standards: his own.
“All cuisine is classical cuisine. Cooking a potato is cooking a potato, and you add dressing to it. You learn the principle of what it is. When I first moved here, my boss wanted me to make scones. I didn’t know what a scone was, so I got a recipe book and made it. It didn’t come out that good,” Alon said. “But then I was visiting a bakery, and I ate one, and I decided to try it again, and it was delicious. I made it from the taste.”
With a menu that is constantly expanding and changing, Alon’s somehow seems to get it right. He recently added a zucchini salad made with corn, parmesan cheese and a cream sauce that is gaining popularity.
But his desserts, with a sweetness that pairs perfectly with the earthiness of the restaurant, are what leave an imprint on the memory of customers, from cheesecake, panna cotta and flourless chocolate cake to cookies and his French macaroons.
Like his desserts, Alon is a constant, walking around in his chef uniform. If you don’t know him by name, he stands out as that tall guy with the big smile. “It’s been a roller coaster, and I work six days a week, but I’m still here.”