In a country built on the blending of different backgrounds and cultures, food offers the perfect vehicle for sharing one’s roots. Bakers are uniquely positioned to capitalize on the emotional connection between consumers and nostalgic baked products. And by offering their own variations, they can help customers form new memories to pass along that have strong ties to the bakeries themselves.
Say it with kringle
O&H Danish Bakery, Racine, Wis., has been turning out Danish kringle since 1949. The butter-enriched, almond filled pastry emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s with the Danes, many of whom settled in southern Wisconsin. Kringle has since become ingrained in the Racine community; O&H sells more than 7,000 kringle each week, with about 70 percent coming from its retail locations and the other 30 from mail orders.
“Kringle provides a story, and there’s a strong emotional connection for people because of that story,” says Eric Olesen, third-generation co-owner of O&H with his brother Michael. Kringle carries a different meaning for everyone, whether it is offered to a new neighbor, used as a salesperson’s calling card or presented as a hostess gift. “Whether it is because of their ethnicity or just being part of a community that is proud of its pastry, it’s part of the fabric of who we are in Racine,” Olesen says.
The traditional Danish version was formed in a pretzel shape and flavored with almond filling. But since the 1940s in the United States, kringle has been formed into a ring, which Olesen attributes to customer demand for a larger filling-to-pastry ratio. “The overlap of the pretzel shape meant there was less filling. Astute bakers listened to their customers, and we ended up with the oval shape that has filling in every bite.” Customer preferences also contributed to an expansion in filling varieties from the traditional almond to the now best-selling pecan with brown sugar and cinnamon, raspberry, cream cheese, red velvet, cherry, apple and maple walnut.
“Everybody is their own individual. What trips their trigger is different from one to the next,” Olesen says. “O&H fans are really fans of us and our kringle. It’s a lot of fun for some people to share and brag and talk about the special things in their own life and kringle is one of those.”
A staple in a changing neighborhood
For those whose families settled in the United States many generations ago, their last remaining ties to the old county are often the foods their families have passed down. For the 80-year-old Swedish Bakery in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood (predominantly Swedish until recently), the area’s demographics have changed significantly but the bakery’s roots in traditional European desserts and a growing interest in food have kept it a mainstay in the neighborhood.
“Part of it is a tie to the past. It is part of their heritage,” says owner Dennis Stanton. “And food has become increasingly popular through the Internet, the Food Network and reality-based food shows. If you’re into food, there are lots of opportunities to indulge your interest.”
Customers don’t typically express much interest in learning about the history of the more traditional items offered at the bakery, as their ability to search just about anything online has eroded many of those questions.
“We don’t have people coming in and asking questions,” Stanton says. “They are more content saying things like, ‘This is what I used to have at my grandmother’s house,’ or ‘When I was a kid, my mom made this for us on Christmas morning.’”
Christmas tends to fuel extra interest in traditional items because it’s the biggest food holiday, Stanton says. Swedish Bakery’s best sellers during the holidays are the cardamom coffeecakes, cardamom toast and marzipan princess tortes, in addition to cookies, pastries and cakes. During the last week of Christmas this year, the bakery sold 350 to 400 different products in-store and online. All told, the bakery sold 1,000 varieties during December and posted a 15 percent sales increase compared to last year. Online orders explode around the holidays, especially for the cardamom coffeecakes, Stanton says. “They will do a Google search and find us, or they used to live in the area and retired off somewhere, but they will remember we have that particular item and come back to us to get it.”