For the last two or three weeks, it seems that the first thing many of the people I meet on the street in downtown Magnolia say to me is, “I see they’ve closed your office. What happened to the Upper Crust? What happened to our bakery?”
I can only answer, “I don’t know.”
I don’t get involved in the politics of business or the gossip. I found out about the bakery closing like most everybody else did: I got a phone call from one of the other bakery regulars, telling me that I’d better be at the bakery the next day because the owners were closing it down and the regulars were meeting for one last cup of coffee.
The Queen Anne/Magnolia News recently described us regulars as “Village elders” who gather there most mornings to share coffee, news and friendly companionship.
We don’t think of ourselves so much as “elders,” but more like the “Bakery Babes, plus Gary and Al.” Or, as the Lady Majorie refers to them, as the “Bakery Bagettes,” of which she is one.
More than just food
Looking back through history, the Village Bakery was once owned and operated by Arnold and Hedy Rusch, Swiss immigrants who had both worked in New York at the 1940 World’s Fair. They then came to the Northwest to run the Swiss Bakery in Downtown Seattle.
By 1949, they had saved enough money to buy Binick’s Electric Bakery (about which I could find nothing) on West McGraw Street, across the street from the current location of the bakery.
Besides servicing Magnolia, the Ruschs also did specialty baking for a number of commercial accounts.
I first became aware of the Village Bakery in late 1977. I had just been discharged from Harborview hospital and had lost at least 50 pounds during my stay. I was living alone and could eat almost endless pastries. The bakery should have hired me as a shill: “Look at this skinny guy! Every time you’re in here, he’s always eating. Look how thin he stays.”
Well, that didn’t last long. For the last couple of decades, I’ve mostly limited myself to just daily cups of coffee.
A new bakery, the Upper Crust, was then opened across the street by Judy Quinton and her daughter Sheri. The Quintons expanded the selection of bakery treats from those that were offered by the Swiss bakery across the street, and I switched allegiances and started to hang out there.
I wasn’t the only one. The bakery soon began to attract larger numbers of Magnolia residents as they visited the Village.
Mothers with baby strollers and trailing, little kids soon found that it was a good place to take a break, maybe get the kid a cookie and meet other mommies with similar interests and problems.
The bakery had become a meeting place, almost a clubhouse. Groups of women would collect there after an exercise class, figuring that a cup of coffee or a cookie was a just reward after all the physical work they’d just done.
The next owner was Gunther Werner, who already had a successful bakery in the University District. Because of that, he knew which choices moved well, and he started offering more European items. Gunther’s age eventually became a factor, and he decided to retire.
He then sold the bakery to Pia and Peter Larsen. Peter’s uncle owned Larsen Bakeries, and although the Upper Crust was entirely independent from them, Peter introduced many Danish selections to the offerings.
Peter and Pia became good friends of the Lady Marjorie and myself, and we began to learn just how much work running a bakery is.
To begin with, the profit margin of a bakery is very thin. Once you’ve paid for the building rent, the raw materials to make your product, hired counter help, another baker to help with production — and I’m sure there are many more additional costs I haven’t yet mentioned — a bakery just doesn’t take in that much money.
On top of all that, there are the hours bakers must keep. While you and I are sleeping peacefully, the baker is up at 3 a.m., working hard at bread, cake, roll and Danish production. There were times when I’d find myself hanging out with Peter in the early, pre-dawn morning, and I was amazed at the amount of work baking consumed.
Peter and Pia have two daughters, Mette and Birgitte, who regular bakery customers watched grow up from blond-haired little kids into charming, young women.
Bakery customers, during the Larsen ownership, were treated as friends who happened to shop at the Upper Crust. There were at least two wine bus tours to the Yakima area organized at the bakery, and I remember the charter of a fish boat on the Sound, too.
Peter often commented, “I’m not running a bakery; I’m running an adult day-care center.”
The Larsen's then decided to move to Minnesota and placed the bakery for sale again.
Kara Kozber, who worked in the back of the bakery in the production area, where she learned how to prepare all of the scrumptious, butter-laden, bakery treats, then took over the bakery ownership, until being a single mother with two girls became too much work, and the bakery was sold again to Anna and Mike Beard.
Mike and Anna fought a good fight, but they began to realize that the hours were just too punishing. Having a young son, Aidan, they, too, were going to miss too much of his growing up. So, sadly, the bakery was closed.
A new place
There are a few of us old bakery stalwarts, however, who, in searching for a new daily coffee spot, have discovered, up the street, the Serendipity Cafe, owned by Jennifer Young and Nanette Baker, as a suitable new coffee lounge.
The only problem is that they don’t have a window from which I can sit to watch the Magnolia traffic pass by.