Engin Aktaş: The Bread Whisperer Who Shaped the Destiny of a Community

Engin Aktaş, the successful Turkish professional who has been a manager at Calandra's Bakery for 40 years, is a man who stands as a right-hand man to the owner, a member of the family. His life story is a testament to resilience and triumph, unfolding against the backdrop of Calandra's Bakery, a renowned institution in New Jersey. Let's delve into the remarkable journey of Engin Aktaş, where passion, dedication, and a touch of destiny intersect. In August 1984, when he arrived in America, he sought to try his luck in his father's profession of baking in Türkiye. He applied for a job at a small bakery in Newark. The owner observed his dough handling skills but wasn't entirely impressed. "You're good, but not that good," he remarked. Determined, the young Engin boldly replied, "We'll see about that," and set off to another bakery across the street. There, he was immediately hired. After three weeks of work, he returned to the first bakery he applied for a job. Little did he know that this place would be Calandra's, one of New Jersey's most famous bread bakeries. From that day forward, he would change not only his own fate but also the lives of countless Turks who would venture into New Jersey. Established by Luciano Calandra, an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily, in 1962, the bakery is still managed by his children Anthony, Luciano Jr., and their grandchildren.

Coming from politically turbulent 1980s Türkiye, Aktas had no choice but to seek success in America. Had he stayed in Türkiye, he could have fallen victim to a political assassination or languished in prison. Perhaps he would have faced the same fate as some of his friends who received death sentences. With the help of his father, he served his military duty as the driver for General Haydar Saltık at the Selimiye Barracks between 1982 and 1984. During his service, he had the opportunity to drive for General Kenan Evren, who orchestrated the 1980 Military Coup.

The idea of coming to America took root in Aktas's mind during those tumultuous years of conflict. He says, "I was an extreme leftist. During the May 1st, 1977 workers' rally, two of my friends were killed. On that day, I hid in the sea at Kabataş Pier for three hours. That's when I decided to go to the USA."

Aktaş, hailing from Çanakkale, Türkiye with Yugoslav (Tikveş) heritage from his father's side and Albanian roots from his mother's side, was the only son of his family. After eight months of working at Calandra's bakery, he was appointed as the manager. Calandra's is known for its authentic handcrafted Italian bread, pastries, and baked goods, which are distributed to over a thousand locations in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Until the year 2000, Aktaş managed two separate bakeries in the state. However, due to union-related issues, he decided to quit his job. In the 1980s, he had made efforts to introduce unionized labor in his father's bakery, and now he found himself trying to resolve the issues caused by unionized workers at Calandra's. "I'm exhausted, I'm quitting," he declared. But the owners did not accept his resignation; instead, they offered him a new position to ensure he stayed. Since that day, he became responsible for all daily activities at Calandra's, from signing checks to managing the input and output of the bakeries. With around 250 employees at the time, his rise within the company opened doors of opportunity for many Turkish youth who came to America to work. Turkish entrepreneurs working at the bakery took charge of distributing the bread to the New York market. He provided employment opportunities for numerous Turks in the bakery, hotel, and restaurant sectors at Calandra’s.

Within Calandra's group, Aktaş is both deeply respected and somewhat feared as a manager. In 2008, the group opened a bakery, restaurant, and bread sales complex in Caldwell, New Jersey, resembling a small Italian village. Some of the materials used by the group are imported from Türkiye, thanks to Aktaş's initiatives. At the time of the interview, he was in talks with a Turkish company that supplied cake and pastry boxes. When asked about the proximity between Turkish and Italian cultures, he says, "Even if they weren't close, I made them closer."

Currently, Calandra's employs nearly 800 people across three bakeries, a shopping center, four hotels, and several restaurants. Despite being 93 years old, the founder, Luciano, occasionally visits the workplace. Calandra's bakery stands out as one of the most profitable establishments in New Jersey, with bread priced 15% higher than the market average. They produce close to 20,000 loaves of bread per day. The Calandra family resists transitioning to mass production methods and emphasizes the freshness of their bread by encouraging customers to freeze and reheat it after a week or ten days. He highlights that their secret lies in producing bread without any additives. The master baker at Calandra's has been working there for nearly 30 years. The daily production capacity used to be twice as high 15 years ago, but recent campaigns against carbohydrates have led to changes in the daily habits of Americans. According to recent studies, an average American consumes 53 pounds of bread per year. Aktaş believes that the younger generation consumes less bread.

The experienced manager, when asked about the key difference between Turkish bread and the bread at Calandra's, emphasizes the salt content. "The bread I used to make in Türkiye in 1980’s is no different from the bread made here. Flour, yeast, salt, and water. The only difference is the salt content," he says. Of course, the quality of the flour used also plays a crucial role.

When asked if he has retirement plans after 40 years, he confidently replies, "I can't stop working." Finding someone who possesses a comprehensive understanding of every detail of the company after nearly four decades is a challenge in itself. He has become an indispensable figure, a trusted advisor to the owners, and a cherished member of the Calandra family.

Engin, a father of four, has children who pursued careers in software, law, teaching, and economics at NYU. When asked if he would have wanted his children to follow in his footsteps, he says, "To do this job, you need to be a bit old-fashioned." Engin frequently visits Türkiye to see his 92-year-old father. His greatest passion, bordering on obsession, is hunting.

In the heartwarming tale of Engin Aktaş, we witness a remarkable journey of perseverance and dedication. As a pillar of Calandra's Bakery, he not only transformed his own life but also uplifted the lives of countless individuals in the Turkish community. Engin Aktaş, the bread whisperer, stands tall as an embodiment of passion, hard work, and the power of unity. Photos by Koray Kasap