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The Cracker Barrel: The end of an era

News that bakery that was open for 101 years in Chicago is closing its doors brings back fond memories.

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Last week, Bob Behm, a cousin from Chicago, sent sad news.

Dinkel’s Bakery, a fixture for more than 100 years on the north side of the city, is closing at the end of this month.

The bakery, at 3329 N. Lincoln Ave., opened in 1922 under Joseph and Antonie Dinkel. According to the news article Bob sent, it’s been run by four generations of the family and questions about it being sold have come up before. But a sign in the window at the start of April confirmed the closing.

“To our customers and neighbors. Thank you … 101 years serving you. But it is time.”

Norman Dinkel, 79, said it was closing so he could retire.

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“It’s never a good time to close, so I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. “No one wants to see this, but it’s time.”

The bakery had been in talks with a few interested buyers, but deals to sell it fell through because, said Dinkel, “They didn’t want to actually work. They want to buy a business and make money, but this is a business where you’ve got to work every day.”

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As part of the community for more than a century, the bakery earned a widespread reputation for its handmade, quality pastries, and served generations of families over the years.

“What makes Dinkel’s so special is we offer stability in a crazy world and moment in time in which you can get something for your family or sit down and get a cup of coffee,” Dinkel said. “I’m going to miss that because it was a nice thing to offer, especially in the last few years when this world was really crazy.”

Dinkel’s words have a special resonance for members of my family. Both my mom and dad were born within a few blocks of the bakery and grew up with a particular fondness for the place. Some of my early memories include visits to the bakery, though we moved out of Chicago when I was in early grade school.

But the thing I remember most vividly was the story Mom told of her dad’s (my grandpa’s) connection to the place, even before it was known as Dinkel’s.

Grandpa was 12 when his own father died, leaving Grandpa responsible for helping feed his five younger siblings. Given little choice in the matter, he dropped out of school, got a job and went to work. Along with millions of others, he also developed a lifelong habit of stretching a dollar till the eagle whimpered.

As part of the strategy to feed his family, Grandpa took to shopping at the bakery twice a week for loaves of day-old bread. At the time (and for many years afterward) it was the bakery’s habit to stock a large bowl of hard candy upon the checkout counter, with the understanding that customers were welcome to take a piece upon purchasing something.

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Craig Nagel
Craig Nagel, Columnist

Thus it was that Grandpa came up with the plan of taking home two pieces of candy per week and hiding them away until Christmas. At that time, if finances permitted, he bought a fresh orange for each sibling and he and his mom divided up the candy to top off the orange in each child’s Christmas stocking, which served as their only Christmas gifts.

All of this happened long before I was born, but if Mom’s memory was accurate, the joy of those early Christmases was clearly linked to the original proprietors of a bakery whose values - and those of four successive generations of owners - made the world a kinder and tastier place.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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