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Progress: Experimenting in the kitchen: Aitkin Bakery finds new life in cooperative effort

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Exterior of the Aitkin Bakery commercial kitchen incubator. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video2 / 5
A display of sweets for sale at the Aitkin Bakery. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video3 / 5
Owner John Ziebarth talk about the bakery in Aitkin. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video4 / 5
Bakers Terry Butenhoff (left), Jayne Mlynar and Patty Dickhausen talk in the kitchen area at the Aitkin Bakery. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video5 / 5

AITKIN—Julie Ince visits the Aitkin Bakery once a week.

It's the miniature lemon curd bundt cakes that lure her through the door, but she also enjoys the mystery of the new offerings she might find behind the glass.

"It's all just really good," Ince said as she purchased her weekly staple. "There's always something different to try."

On an early August morning, Ince settled on a second mini delight, a chocolate fudge bundt procured from a dizzying array of cookies, tarts, pies, candies, rolls, cupcakes, bars and doughnuts.

It's not just the desserts Ince comes for, the Aitkin woman said—the women behind the counter make the experience.

"I just like all of it," she said. "Really nice ladies. ... They've got their own thing."

More than 80 years after the business first opened its doors, it still looks, smells and tastes like a traditional bakery. But there's a twist: it now serves as home base for four entrepreneurs and their own small businesses, with room to welcome others for whom a storefront or kitchen facility might otherwise be unattainable.

That day and most Fridays and Saturdays, Dorine Bentley-Sorben, Terry Butenhoff, Jayne Mlynar and Patty Dickhausen busied themselves with rolling, glazing and oven timing.

"Maybe you want to try something out, but you're not really sure whether it's going to work out and you don't really want to invest a fairly large amount of money in a commercial kitchen," said owner John Ziebarth. "It was sort of an opportunity to give it a try and make it happen. We've been pretty successful at that so far."

Ziebarth is at the helm of the Aitkin Bakery commercial kitchen incubator, a shared space permitting anyone from hobby bakers to those with grander ambitions to rent the use of industrial ovens, massive mixers and roomy counter space. Following the closure of the original bakery in 2013 and another traditional venture early this year, Ziebarth began exploring the idea of a common kitchen after he was approached by someone interested in renting the space.

He learned the concept of shared commercial spaces wasn't new—the Minnesota Department of Agriculture notes at least 17 such licensed facilities throughout the state—but it would be new to Aitkin. What was once the realm of church basements transitioned to more formal settings as regulations modernized, paving the way for a concept promoting cooperation and support among like-minded dreamers.

"What we discovered was an awful lot of people in town had small businesses but didn't have a place to bake (or) to cook, and so they would come to us and ask if they could rent the space or lease the space," Ziebarth said. "If it works for them, they'll expand out and they'll buy new space, invest the kind of money it takes to put this together."

Butenhoff, 59, heard about the incubator from Erik Heimark of Maple Ridge Produce, who was the first to begin using the bakery to produce hundreds of loaves of his locally sourced bread. A longtime candy maker and baker, Butenhoff thought the space seemed a good fit for her to launch Terry's Treats.

As she rolled out crust for her lemon meringue pies, Butenhoff watched the clock, running behind on returning to her State Farm Insurance office in town. Her blueberry pies, featuring berries from her own patch, baked in the oven nearby.

"My mom bakes. I come from a family of six kids," Butenhoff said. "I've been making my dad lemon meringue pies since I was in high school."

On another counter, Dickhausen, 52, splayed out batches of molasses cookies, her grandmother's recipe. Dickhausen and Bentley-Sorben, 60, work together as part of the Miss Patty's Cookies team, offering 10 other varieties that Friday morning. Bentley-Sorben greeted customers and manned the register while her mini peach pie tarts cooled in the back.

"I was the baker of the family. I've always enjoyed it," Bentley-Sorben said. "It's just something that's been in the family."

Giant caramel rolls baked by Mlynar, 58, glistened with glaze as she cut seven-layer bars nearby. Her specialty is buns and other yeasted breads, some of the offerings of her business Kneading Dough.

While the bakers each have their own aims, the storefront at Aitkin Bakery offers an opportunity for collaboration—in the vein of the ubiquitous farmers market, the group launched a twice-weekly bakers market. It serves as a chance for revenue, but also the chance to try out new desserts and hear from the community which treats they crave. The offerings are made fresh from scratch, setting it apart from the larger retail offerings of area grocery stores.

"It's all from scratch, so we don't have preservatives in anything," Butenhoff said. "So that makes it all a little touchier, too. But that's also why we're doing it. Otherwise, you can get frozen stuff and throw it in the oven and call it whatever. Which a lot of bakeries have to do."

Ziebarth sees more in the bakery operation than simply a weekend respite for a sugary pick-me-up. For the Aitkin businessman, the concept offers the chance to foster opportunity for the city's residents and grow the economic base of the community.

"I'm not about to tell you that a bakery is the kind of industry that is going to maintain Aitkin for the rest of its life, that's not realistic," he said. "But I think that encouraging small businesses and encouraging small operations to get started allows families who normally would just have to move for economic reasons, it allows them to stay and it allows Aitkin to maintain. That's what we need to do, we need to start that cycle of business, of industry, of jobs, so that there are jobs in the community."

The facility also serves as a training ground for future small business owners, replicating the environment and challenges of managing cash flow and inventory, building relationships and establishing a business plan.

"It's a transition sort of opportunity," Ziebarth said. "I don't have any illusions that this is the be-all-end-all. If their business takes off, eventually they're going to have to invest in their own facility."

But those who wish to bake their family's Christmas cookies or prepare for a graduation party are welcome, too. The space is available for rent by the hour, along with refrigerator and freezer space and dry storage. Caterers might also find the space amenable to large-scale events, versus navigating the home kitchen.

As customers stream in and out of the bright, cheery bakery located along a busy Highway 169, conversation and laughter rings through the building. Learning to work together, share counter space and coordinate baking times unite the small business owners in a common goal, and their camaraderie reflects those tasks. It's a work in progress, but it's a challenge the women said they enjoy. They take orders for one another, talk up each other's offerings and, of course, serve as taste testers of their fellow bakers' goods.

Bentley-Sorben said the goal is to fine-tune the process so each of the bakers won't need to be at the bakery every day of the market.

"Then they don't have to be here for the weekend but they still will get some money," she said. "It's all teamwork. This small community, we need it."

"It's different when you're just yourself and your kitchen and doing your thing," Ziebarth said. "But when you have to negotiate a variety of things to get the day done. ... that's part of business, that's part of learning to negotiate with either business partners or other businesses."

Future plans are formulating as the incubator takes shape. Lefse is on the docket for this autumn, along with classes to teach others the Scandinavian art. Wholesale licensing is on the wish list for the small business owners seeking expansion, and the invention of new sweet delights is always underway.

Aitkin's bakers are dreaming big, and the city's residents and visitors appear to be taking notice.

"The community seems to love it," Ziebarth said. "I love it."

The Aitkin Bakers Market is 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every Friday and Saturday at the Aitkin Bakery, 15 Second St. NE. For more information on kitchen rental and availability, visit www.aitkinbakery.com or call Ziebarth at 763-772-5955. Find Kneading Dough, Maple Ridge Produce and Miss Patty's Cookies on Facebook.

Factbox

Business: Aitkin Bakery commercial kitchen incubator.

City: Aitkin.

Number of users: Four businesses regularly use the commercial kitchen facility.

Interesting or little known fact: From about 1935 through 2013, the Aitkin Bakery was a mainstay in the community as a traditional bakery.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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