Blog: Postcard from the USA

I really like to travel and I like to go walkabout, just to see what’s out there. My dad always said that you never learn anything in your own back yard and how true that is.

COOKIES: Smart proves there is more to American bakeries

It was once said to me, “America; why would you want to go there, it’s only cookies and doughnuts?” I was taken aback at the sheer ignorance of her statement.

One of my passions is research – something that was passed on to me by my late father, William Allan, who was a great researcher and reader. It was through research that I discovered there was a Retail Bakers of America.

This huge organisation represents the independent bakers of America, proving there are in fact 'real bakers' in America and not just plant operations producing sweet whole-wheat bread you cannot toast.

Every part of America is covered by this organisation, so I took a stab at Chicago and researched this area. Chicago is also where the business Panera was started. It’s an impressive company and worth a look at if you are in the US. It now has over 1,000 shops, all producing fresh products daily.

I also learned that there was an off-shoot from the main association called the Bakers Dozen, based in Chicago. Twelve bakers meet at each other’s bakeries every month and critique each other’s products. After that they discuss trade matters, do some benchmarking and then all go for a meal in a local restaurant.

I wanted to meet these guys, so I started to dig a little deeper. Jarosch Bakery Inc. from Elk Grove Village, kept appearing on my searches. It’s owned by Ken Jarosch and his family, so I e-mailed him to say ‘hello’ with a brief description of who we were and to ask whether I could visit his bakery, and hopefully some of the other businesses in the area. A little forward and presumptuous I know, but you have to be if you want to learn. My dad used to walk straight into restaurant kitchens and talk to the chef if he wanted to learn anything, and more often than not he got away with it.

I soon got a very warm reply back from Ken inviting me to his business. I also received an invite to the next meeting of the Bakers Dozen, which purely by coincidence was at his bakery.  I arranged a set of dates and booked the flights. This is what I like: the rich possibilities that lie ahead; the unknown adventure with new people to meet.

I wanted to see twelve bakeries in four days, as well as attend the Bakers Dozen meeting. Most of the bakeries were uptown Chicago, in the ‘villages’. There were a couple of downtown bakeries, but these businesses, like some British ones, have migrated into the coffee shop format, similar to Panera.

One of the most impressive bakeries I visited was Bennison`s of Evanston, and it was also the place where I got my first parking citation (ticket) for parking on the side of the road of oncoming traffic.

Bennison`s was a prime spot for a business, on the corner, big and brash, like most American bakeries, but its superior product quality was at a whole new level. So much for cookies and doughnuts I thought.

Evanston is quite cosmopolitan and has many students walking the streets. Coffee culture is well established and there were some gorgeous confectionery on sale. All the breads were sourdough and priced accordingly. There wasn`t a piece of bread under $3.50.

Oleson`s of Racine, just north of Chicago, was another interesting business which specialise in Kringles - a family sized Danish Pastry. Michael and his brother, who own and run the business, predominantly send all their products via parcel post - an interesting concept.

My time in Chicago soon came to an end. I managed to visit all 12 bakeries and get a good impression of the American retail bakery sector. It would certainly be foolish to think the UK was ahead of America in bakery terms. American bakers have weathered the storm of national retail chains (something we are still doing) and are now ploughing their own furrow in various guises. Some sell huge amounts of cookies and doughnuts, as well as celebration cakes. For Ken Jarosch from Elk Grove, over 50% of his business is celebration cakes, all made to order.

Some bakeries were just awe inspiring and were well worth the trip. Another little gem of knowledge for you doubters: all but one of the businesses were scratch bakers with not a pre-mix insight.

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