During the pandemic, many people have taken up hobbies or learned new skills, some to keep from losing their minds, others for more entrepreneurial reasons. Dolly Meckler, founder of Challah Dolly, falls into the latter camp. Having left New York and the corporate world of HBO (Game Of Thrones and Westworld) and YouTube (where she’d been a social media manager) to take up freelancing full time, she found herself on her own in a new city after a move in late 2019 to Los Angeles. Six months later, COVID hit and with no one hiring, she was drawn to bread-making after seeing people on social media posting about their forays into banana bread and sourdough starter. She started with a recipe for challah from the New York Times, shared her pursuit on Instagram and the enterprise swiftly took off from there. It’s now available for purchase online with shipping nationwide.
TCJ: What’s your background? Did you grow up religious or culturally Jewish?
Dolly Meckler: I went to a Jewish summer camp, I had a bat mitzvah and grew up going to synagogue on High Holy days. My brother and I were among the few Jewish kids at my high school in New Canaan.
TCJ: What made you decide to try your hand at making challah, which is not nearly as easy as banana bread?
DM: When COVID hit, I thought, ‘Let me jump on this bread-making bandwagon.’ I’m not a cook or a baker. I’ve never made bread before. I had memories of making challah at summer camp. I thought, ‘if a kid can do it, I could do it.’ I’m someone who’s always liked making things but in the digital media space. I documented on Instagram looking for yeast and flour in LA. The first loaf was an all-day project. I was so shocked, it was so beautiful! I posted on Instagram. Sharing with the world is so satisfying. The bread was the medium. People immediately asked, can I buy one? Challah reminds people of home. There’s nostalgia. I then thought, ‘Wait, I’m in social media. I can make this a business.’
TCJ: How did you go from making loaves in your kitchen to a full-fledged company?
DM: A friend helped me make a logo. I put this digital content online. In June 2020 I decided to come back to NY and my network said, ‘I want to buy a challah.’ The brand awareness was already in play. I started baking in my apartment on the Upper East Side and people would come by for the bread. They were so happy! There’s so much joy when you receive delicious bread. Then there was press. I teamed up with a bakery. I ran a pop-up and baked 100 loaves. We sold out in one day. We then went to monthly. I was able to go to wholesale after reaching out to a bunch of stores in my neighborhood.
TCJ: Where did the name come from? Are you a Broadway fan?
DM: It was inspired by Broadway and Dolly Levi. I had a web series in college: I did man-on-the-street (interviews) in high-traffic areas and interviewed students. I had a microphone that said, “Hello, Dolly”.
TCJ: Do you think the business would have taken off if you’d just emailed some people and created a website?
DM: No. It was social media. Not only was I creating a brand online but I was creating a community. There were people in LA and NY: foodies and non-religious audiences. I heard from people who said ‘I’ve never had CHA-llah bread before.’ First I had to correct them on the pronunciation. People tagged, shared with friends. It was at the peak of the pandemic: a perfect storm. We were on our phones 24/7. We were looking for that social interaction with people
TCJ: Do you know who makes up your customer base and how it is that they haven’t had challah before?
DM: The bulk of my demographic is secular, modern Jewish people. My whole brand mission is to make challah cool. Challah has a reputation of being reserved for Friday night Shabbat dinner. I’m trying to make it accessible: it’s so good you can eat it with anything!
TCJ: You have a podcast – You Have Such A Pretty Face. What’s the intersection between baking and the series?
DM: I started You Have Such A Pretty Face during COVID. I interviewed women about fatphobia and growing up in larger bodies. It was incredible. I had a lot of food fears. I grew up fat. Speaking with other women about these fears was so liberating. It tied in so beautifully with what I was baking. I was able to mentally let go of my fear of bread. It’s not the devil. And I push that out into the world.
TCJ: Have you heard from any famous celebrities who’ve tried your challah?
DM: I received a video of Billy Crystal eating my challah. That was incredible! Also Shoshana Bean, Lena Dunham and Jenny Mollen have had it.
TCJ: What are your next plans for Challah Dolly as you transition out of being a business that started during the pandemic?
DM: I hope to get it into more hands, growing the wholesale and retails ends. Beyond that I’m figuring out ways to foster the community. That was the most fun. I’m getting back to the roots of that and seeing what I can create.
To find out more about the company and to order challah and merchandise, check out the Challah Dolly website.