Inside their cramped bakery, Joachim "Aki" Berndt and his employees hustled to keep up with growing demand for the pretzels for which his northeast Minneapolis shop has become famous in just three years.
The sweet smell of freshly baked bread wafted through Aki's BreadHaus as door chimes jingled, announcing customers, and as bakers dipped knotted dough into lye, salting and baking it into golden hues.
"That's perfection," Berndt said.
Besides baking German-style breads and soft pretzels, Berndt, a German immigrant, is part of the redevelopment reshaping Central Avenue.
In 2011, neighbors banded together to start the NorthEast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) to pool capital for use in rehabbing abandoned storefronts. The group bought up buildings near the busy intersection at Lowry and Central avenues. NEIC sold one building to Recovery Bike Shop and leased the other to Fair State Brewing Cooperative and Aki's BreadHaus.
"That intersection has changed a lot," said Loren Schirber, an NEIC board member.
Since Berndt started his business in 2010, it's grown rapidly in the revitalized Minneapolis neighborhood, selling bread to farmers markets in the west metro and to the booming Twin Cities brewery industry.
"Most of our bread, you won't find anywhere else," said Berndt, 62, who moved to Minnesota in 2000 and lives in Maple Grove with his wife, Nancy Stowe.
Both Fair State and Aki's BreadHaus, which share a building, have outgrown their spaces. Fair State announced plans last fall for a St. Paul production facility, and now Berndt is looking for a bigger facility to keep up with the wholesale demand.
"We're really proud of him," Schirber said of Berndt.
Reinventing a career
Berndt, discouraged by the lack of authentic German bread in the metro, started baking in a west metro church kitchen in 2010 as a hobby.
After a career in construction architecture in Germany and Minnesota, Berndt was laid off in 2009 during the housing market collapse. While he had baked and cooked for his wife and two daughters for years, it wasn't until he provided bread to a church that someone suggested he sell it.
He started selling bread to farmers markets in suburbs such as Osseo and Hopkins, honing his self-taught skills late at night in the rented kitchen and by working at a west metro bakery for two years. Then in 2011, the architect-turned-baker landed a big request: Surly Brewing's then-taproom in Brooklyn Center wanted about 500 pretzels for a festival. The order sent Berndt scrambling to recruit family and friends to fill it.
Since then, Surly has made Aki's pretzels a menu staple, going through 500 to 1,200 pretzels a week, said Jorge Guzman, Surly's executive chef.
"He's our pretzel guy," Guzman said. "It's amazing to watch a small business grow," he added.
Besides Surly, Aki's pretzels can be found at four other breweries — HammerHeart in Lino Lakes and Fair State, Lakes & Legends and LynLake in Minneapolis. The brewery orders make up nearly half of Berndt's business.
'The pretzel guy'
The rest of the business comes from suburban farmers markets and loyal customers in Minneapolis. In 2014, within three days of leasing the 1,500-square-foot former hardware store space at 2506 Central Ave., Berndt said he had made enough to pay his rent.
"The whole neighborhood was in here," he said. "They were excited a baker was in the neighborhood again."
Now, Berndt and 13 employees bake about 1,200 pretzels and 450 loaves a week, going through as much as 1,500 pounds of flour. Berndt said he aims for hardy German breads, using traditional recipes for currant rye and Bauernbrot (dark sourdough) from his hometown of Mönchengladbach.
"People like that ... he's German, it's part of the business," said his 21-year-old daughter, Celina.
His success has moved him from selling pretzels as a "sidekick" to being greeted in Maple Grove as "the pretzel guy."
"Every German that moves here gets sick of the bread here real fast," Berndt said. "I love what I'm doing."