`byline:BY DEBORAH ALEXANDER
Like Mom and apple pie, Racine and kringle are a delicious tradition.
The mainstay of area bakeries, the light, delicate pastry filled with either custard, fruit or nuts is one of our best products. Kringle enjoys an international reputation we can be proud of.
Over the years, this transplanted Danish sweet has thrived in bakeries using the original recipes which are generations old. Pecan kringle is number one among customers.
After 63 years the recipe remains the same for the kringle made at Bendtsen's Bakery, 3200 Washington Ave.
"Nothing has been changed to decrease our quality. We only use the best ingredients," said Cindy Bendtsen. "We're very generous with what we do and have good prices." Along with her husband, Ben Bendtsen Jr., the couple are the fourth generation to own and run the west side bakery.
Founded by Lauritz Bendtsen, who learned the baking trade in Denmark before coming to Racine, the kringle is still handmade. Lauritz's decision to settle here and open a bakery in the city was based on the large Danish-descent population at the time, said Cindy.
Bendtsen's offers 23 varieties of kringle which can be mail-ordered all over the world and shipped overseas. The bakery also has a full line of cakes, cookies, breads and donuts.
Pecan kringle is the best seller, said Cindy, adding "We'll make just about anything."
Two variations of the popular Danish pastry were sauerkraut and ham and cheese.
"A man from Illinois who loves sauerkraut asked 'Can you make one for me?' So we made it," said Cindy of the cabbage filled concoction.
The ham and cheese kringle was the result of an experiment by the bakers.
"I didn't think it would work, but it actually tasted good," said Cindy." The flavor is like a croissant."
Cindy and Ben Jr., along with 10 employees, operate the bakery which is still located at original address.
The family owned business now includes the couple's three children, Audra, 14, and 11-year-old twins, Bendt III and Brittany. The siblings write orders and help clean up.
Another family-run bakery in the next block is Larsen's Bakery, 3311 Washington Ave. Owner Ernie Hutchinson runs the business with his daughter Debbie Jerdee and sons, Dan and Don Hutchinson. The bakery employs 23 people, sometimes up to 40 during peak holidays like Christmas.
Ernie Hutchinson purchased the bakery in 1969 from Eirner Larsen. He kept the name and also the recipes for the kringle which is handmade.
Known as the "Home of Genuine Kringle," the bakery still uses Larsen's Copenhagen recipe to make the 30 varieties of the pastry.
"It's been very successful," said Hutchinson of recipe which takes three days to prepare. "It's a process the average person wouldn't try at home."
Hutchinson was an apprentice baker in Racine from 1947 to 1950 before he was drafted during the Korean War. A general's visit to the front line led to a new job for Hutchinson.
"When the cook found out I was a baker he asked me to help him out," he continued. "I got placed on the front line. After helping him I ended up with his job."
After his discharge, Hutchinson attended the Dunwoody Baking Institute in Minneapolis to complete the remaining year of his apprenticeship.
"I had one more year to go, but felt I needed the technical knowledge," he continued.
From there he went to Lindstrom's Bakery, which he managed for 14 years, before buying Larsen's.
Over the years, sales have increased and the bakery has expanded from a little shop into buildings on either side. Kringle accounts for 56 percent of the bakery's gross sales.
Besides the fresh-baked kringle there is frozen variety sold to different grocery stores. Larsen's also has complete line of retail bake goods.
"Buying frozen bakery, you don't have to be a baker today." said Hutchinson. Top sellers at the bakery are pecan kringle followed by almond, apple, cherry and apricot.
When Eric Olesen and his brothers, Dale and Michael, decided to go into the family owned business, O & H Bakery, they looked to their father, Raymond, for inspiration.
"We were not groomed for this. All three of us went into the business because of the love and joy our father had in baking," said Olesen. "Watching someone do something for so many years with pride and joy, it's not a hard decision to make."
O & H Bakery at 1841 Douglas Ave. has been family owned since 1964. The bakery began in 1949 when grandfather Christian Olesen and his partner Harvey Holtz, opened their doors at 1667 Douglas Ave. Twenty three years later, the bakery moved two blocks north to its present location. A second store opened at 4006 Durand Ave in 1982. About 90 employees worked at both locations. Besides kringle, there is a full line of retail bake goods.
As a young boy, grandfather Christian learned the trade at several bakeries in the city.
"From the Danish to Jewish bakeries, Racine was like a typical European town with a bakery on every street corner," said Olesen. "You get up, walk down to the bakery to get bread for breakfast."
Olesen said O & H offers 15 varieties of kringle. While pecan is the current best seller, almond kringle was the favorite when the pastry was first introduced here.
Also, kringle as we know it was shaped differently.
Theanish pastry was pretzel-shaped with parts overlapping as opposed to an oval, said Olesen. After World War II, bakery customers were becoming more American in their tastes and buying habits.
"Customers were asking for the same kringle, but without the parts that overlapped," Olesen said. "They liked the parts with the filling inside. The overlapping parts were the last eaten."
"In Europe, the focus was not on the filling, but the pastry," he continued. "The filling was an accent to the pastry. Here, Americans like a lot of filling, not as much of the pastry."
Most of today's business is from out of the two stores, said Olesen. There is also mail order business which will ship anywhere in the world.
"We take a lot of pride in what we do," said Olesen. "We're making fine quality Danish pastry and continuing a fine tradition."
Mike and Roylene Heyer may be the only bakery owners with a with a kringle website. The couple purchased Racine Danish Kringle after Heyer left the grocery business in 1988.
At www.kringle.com, pastry lovers can browse through 28 varieties and place orders. Or they can visit the bakery at 2529 Golf Road. The kringle made here is available for wholesale, funding raising and mail order.
"We bake them here, then package and ship them frozen," said Heyer.
The motto of the bakery is "It's not just a treat, it's a tradition."
Fifty employees, from bakers to regional sales people, work for the Heyers. The kringle is sold to grocery stores, restaurants, nursing homes and other institutions in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.
The kringle for fund raising is sold in six other states. The wholesale kringle is 60 percent of the business while fund raising and mail order are 20 percent each, said Heyer.
"We've had slow, calculated growth," said Heyer. "I don't believe in sales for sales sake. The focus is on saturation of the states we have."
"We're doing very well. We started with eight employees and now we're up to 50. It's a fun company."
Charlie Palmer-Ball hopes to find the perfect recipe for retail mail order and wholesale with the purchase of a landmark bakery.
"Everyone has a niche in the bakery business," said Palmer-Ball, one of the owners of the Brick Oven Bakery, 9117 Durand Ave., Sturtevant. "We'd like to expand our wholesale and mail order business."
Charlie and his brother, Wayne, purchased Lehmann's Bakery in November.
Founded by Gordon Lehmann in the 1930, the neighborhood bakery built a strong reputation and tradition with its kringle and other pastries. Lehmann operated the bakery with his wife, Ruth, for 40 years before retiring.
In 1974, Judy Carlson acquired the business and expanded on the early successes.
Meanwhile, the Brick Oven's Spoon & Bake frozen cookie dough was a big hit on QVC, the cable television shopping network. The brothers hit upon the mail order and fund raising idea for their products. The Palmer-Balls acquired the original Lehmann's, at 2210 16th St., and shops at the Shorecrest Shopping Center and Highway 31 and Newman Road from Carlson. Along with the Brick Oven site in Sturtevant, there are 55 employees.
Lehmann's retail and mail order business and The Brick Oven's wholesale mailing list should make a sweet treat.
"Lehmann's is a very strong name as you go out of from Racine," said Palmer-Ball. "The Brick Oven also has had a strong following for the last 10 years. We thought we'd combine the two for a better mix."