Evanston’s European style bakery attracts customers for decades

The family-owned bakery with a history of nearly 80 years ranked the top bakery in Evanston on Yelp. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)

By Yingcong (June) Fu

Noah Plotkim, a resident of Evanston, has been coming to Bennison’s Bakery twice a month for ten years to buy his favorite donuts. “I think it’s the best bakery in Evanston for sweets,” Plotkim said.

Bennison’s Bakery, located at 1000 Davis St. in Evanston, has been there since 1938. With an average of 700 customers per day, Bennison’s chalked up revenue of $3.5 million last year, said Jory Downer, the owner, who’s the second generation to run the family-owned bakery.

Downer’s father, Guy Downer, purchased the bakery in 1967 from the Bennison family and took over operation. Guy Downer, now 93, still comes to the store four times a week.

“Our family put a lot of efforts into it,” Downer said, viewing that as the most significant reason for Bennison’s success.

Now the third generation is joining the store. Downer’s son started working at Bennison’s in 2009 after graduating from a bakery school in Germany, and Downer’s daughter started working there in 2013 after graduating from French Pastry School in Chicago.

Another reason for its success is their ingredients, Downer said, noting that they only use pure and fresh ingredients. “There is no artificial chocolate in our chocolate mousses. And I’m always specific about the flour we buy. I only want a particular brand of flour, and I want it at least to be 16 days old before we use it,” he said.

That’s one of the changes Bennison’s has made in its long history, Downer said. “Years ago Bennison’s was more like a typical American bakery where they use a lot of shortening and artificial ingredients.”

With a higher cost of ingredients, Downer increased prices. An apple pie costs about $3, three times that of an apple pie at McDonald’s.

But located in an upscale city where people may be less sensitive to price, Bennison’s lures customers by its flavors.

Kelly Harris, who moved to Evanston last August, usually buys donuts at Bennison’s after work when walking from the Metra station to her home one block away. “My fiancé likes the donuts. I actually haven’t tried the cake here, but it looks awesome,” Harris said.

Bennison’s attracts customers with desserts made of pure ingredients. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)

Behind the 200-square-foot store is a baking area that’s two times the size of the store.

Twenty-five years ago, to expand the baking area Downer moved it to another building four miles away, but that was “a huge mistake,” he said. “It took us out of the bakery. It no longer smelled good outside,” he said. The transportation also increased costs and damaged the products, he added.

The mistake lasted five years. Downer moved the baking room back in 1995 and expanded the space by buying a print shop next door in 2012.

Bennison’s baking area behind the store. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)

There are 44 employees at Bennison’s, including 18 bakers, four store managers, two drivers and some part-time customer assistants and cashiers.

Victoria Kraft, one of the store managers, has been working there for two years. Working eight to nine hours a day, Kraft manages the operation between the front store and the baking area to make sure the store is fully stocked with the products.

The working time for the staff is relatively long, as there is not a stop in the operation. The bakers make different products at different times, and they usually start preparing for the next day at 6 p.m., an hour before the store closes on weekdays, Downer said. “There are always people coming and going. At night we make donuts. Croissants are baked two or three times during the day,” he said.

“There’s only five days a year, during Christmas, when we stop baking,” Downer said.

Photo at top: The family-owned bakery with a history of nearly 80 years, ranked the top bakery in Evanston on Yelp. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)