Out of work in the pandemic, a young bread maker kept on baking — and launched his own business

Jyan Isaac Horwitz sprinkles flour on dough
Jyan Isaac Horwitz, 19, developed his skills as a baker at Gjusta. After the Venice bakery and cafe closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Horwitz opened his own bakery.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Jyan Isaac Horwitz used to start his day early, waking before sunrise to ensure he’d arrive on time at Gjusta, the popular Venice deli-bakery-coffee bar-lunch spot where he worked full time baking bread. His mornings were spent mixing and kneading amid the kitchen’s controlled chaos, notable for the heat, loud voices and the smell of freshly baked baguettes.

The work was exhausting but Horwitz, 19, was passionate about his job, and when the novel coronavirus outbreak forced Gjusta’s kitchens to close in March, he felt adrift.

To bring a semblance of normality back into his life, Horwitz began to bake naturally fermented sourdough bread out of his family’s kitchen in Venice, selling loaves to friends and neighbors. But word spread, and what began as a way to pass the time in quarantine grew into a business.

Jyan Isaac Bread was on the rise.

Two years ago, Horwitz wasn’t thinking about running a successful business. He was just trying to get through his junior year at Hamilton High.

“I did not like school,” said Horwitz, who played jazz drums and was part of Hamilton’s Academy of Music and Performing Arts magnet.

Horwitz’s father, Bruce, could see that his son was struggling. “I could see it wasn’t just that school was boring for him; he was in pain,” he said. “He needed to be working with his hands and fully immersed in something.”

Jyan Isaac Horwitz at work in his Santa Monica bakery
Jyan Isaac Horwitz at work in his Santa Monica bakery, where he bakes more than 200 loaves per week.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Jyan Isaac Horwitz prepares dough
Jyan Isaac Horwitz prepares dough.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Jyan Isaac Horwitz scores sourdough bread that's ready to go into the oven.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Inspired by a visit to the renowned Tartine bakery during a family trip to San Francisco, Horwitz figured out how to put his hands to good use after his school day ended. Baking bread became a respite from the stresses of academics.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “ I said, ‘I want to do this,’ so I bought the Tartine book and began baking at home.”

The summer after his junior year, Horwitz tried to nab a job in Gjusta’s industrial-style kitchen but was rebuffed. So he let his bread do the talking instead.

“I baked the best bread I could at the time and wrote a note about how much I loved Gjusta and wanted to work there — then left it with the cashier,” he said.

Gjusta’s general manager, Greg Blanc, texted Horwitz that evening: “I guess I have to hire you now.”

At first, Horwitz’s boss, José Mateo, doubted whether the then-17-year-old could handle the job.

“I wasn’t so sure he would last,” Mateo said. “But he arrived every morning at 5 a.m., sometimes even earlier. He was really ready to learn.”

Rather than return to Hamilton High, Horwitz earned his GED, graduated early and kept working alongside Mateo and the rest of the Gjusta team.

Bruce Horwitz could see his son wasn’t slacking.

“I was the typical parent worried about your kid not finishing high school,” he said. “But it was more like an apprenticeship than a job. Plus he was learning grit.”

Jyan Isaac Horwitz
Jyan Isaac Horwitz earned his GED, graduated early and began honing his baking skills at Gjusta.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Over the next two years, Jyan Horwitz was proving himself. He started doing basic prep work — not touching the dough at all. After six months, he began shaping dough. “Eventually, I worked my way up to being one of the primary mixers,” he said.

In February, Horwitz began to think about his next move. He wanted to work at another bakery to learn even more about bread and was thinking of interning in Europe. Then, the novel coronavirus squashed his plans. But it couldn’t stop him from baking.

“I figured I would do some deliveries just around my neighborhood, but it quickly turned into something much bigger,” Horwitz said. He put the word out about Jyan Isaac Bread on Instagram and asked friends to message him if they wanted bread delivered. At $10 a loaf, with a $3 delivery fee, it was pricey, but people were willing to pay for the high quality and convenience of delivery.

What started as a few dozen orders quickly grew to more than 200 loaves per week. And Horwitz joined the ranks of local chefs and bakers driving a new wave of takeout and delivery.

“I was driving all over the city, starting at 7 a.m., and sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 6 p.m.,” he said. “But it was easy at the beginning, because there was no traffic and I could get anywhere in L.A. in 15 minutes.”

One loyal customer, Scott Humphrey, who lives in Santa Monica, began ordering bread from Horwitz after a friend gave him a slice to try. “The loaves are just so beautiful to look at,” Humphrey said. “It’s some of the best bread I’ve had, and it just tastes like it’s made with love.”

Horwitz credits his specific technique and attention to detail for the bread’s golden caramelized crust and rich sourdough flavor. “I make sure the loaf is super hydrated,” he said. More hydration in the dough allows a loaf to stay fresh longer. But most important to Horwitz is the fermentation of the yeast — his is natural. Most bakeries, he said, rely on lab-made yeast, which is easier to use but can make bread harder to digest.

The loaves are rustic, round and baked in cast iron skillets. The look of them was as important to Horwitz as the taste.

“I want them to be blistered and brown,” he said, “I want the crust to shine.”

Bread, baking in the oven at Jyan Isaac Bread.
Loaves of bread bake in Jyan Isaac Horwitz’s oven.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Three loaves of bread
Jyan Isaac Horwitz uses natural yeast and makes sure his bread loaves are “super hydrated.”
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After a few weeks, it became clear that Horwitz and his bread were outgrowing his family’s kitchen. “He was smoking us out of the house,” Bruce Horwitz said. A change of location was in order.

Bruce, an entrepreneur, had recently purchased a small pizza restaurant on Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, but the business had been forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It became Jyan Isaac Bread headquarters. Jyan Horwitz now bakes all his bread there, with the help of his one employee, Gian Torri, whom he hired after moving into the new location.

Customers can purchase individual loaves (a seeded sourdough, a classic country loaf and a whole wheat loaf with rolled oats) that can be picked up at the Ocean Park kitchen, or delivered.

Horwitz hopes to open a storefront soon. “I would like to create a neighborhood bakery where everyone comes to get their loaf of bread each week,” he said.

The pandemic changed Horwitz’s trajectory, but he’s grateful for this new, unexpected opportunity. “I want other people to experience the magic of bread,” he said “It’s just flour, water and salt — but what comes from that is amazing.”