Kelly Olsen had the idea in a dream: There should be a float in Anoka’s Halloween parade to celebrate one of the city’s small gems — Hans’ Bakery, which closed several years ago. The theme would be “there’s a bakery in heaven.”
Olsen doesn’t need a dream interpreter to know what sparked it: She’s busy these days working to bring back the bakery that was started in 1973 by German immigrants Hans and Traudy Birkner.
The vintage building that Olsen bought in late May needs a lot of work, but she aims to reopen the business in time for Halloween.
After Hans Birkner died in 1998, the bakery was sold. It changed hands again, and a third owner struggled to make it work financially, said Olsen, a real estate broker who lives in Orono. The building went through foreclosure while most of the equipment was repossessed. Shortly thereafter, copper thieves ransacked the place, she said.
Right now, Olsen is poring over design plans, lining up contractors, working through city requirements and formulating the menu. She has even enlisted the help of a couple of former bakery workers to reproduce the old recipes, many an American twist on favorites that Hans brought from Germany.
It’s fitting that Olsen’s 101-year-old German grandmother is getting involved as a taste-tester, she said.
Hans and Traudy Birkner’s son, Randy, who lives in Ramsey, said he admires Olsen’s “drive and desire to make it work,” adding, “It’s going to take someone with that kind of drive to get it back on its feet again.”
Olsen is motivated in part by the outpouring of community support for her venture.
The Facebook page she created for Hans’ Bakery has garnered thousands of “likes” from customers through the years and some former employees.
They reminisce about Texas doughnuts that were “the size of your head,” sneaking over to the bakery after mass, and grabbing a pastry before play rehearsal at Fred Moore Middle School. “It’s been very fun just to visit with people about their memories and what they want to see,” Olsen said. “I’m taking it to heart.”
Offline, Olsen is collecting nostalgic photos to display at the bakery, she said.
Also, her inbox is overflowing with offers from perfect strangers to help mow the lawn or install new plumbing, she said. Even the beekeepers who supplied the honey for the bakery’s beehive coffeecakes reached out to her, she said.
The beehive is the most-requested pastry. It will “be a top priority on the menu for sure,” she said.
Olsen, 35, who grew up in Blaine, vividly remembers her trips to the bakery as a child.
After she received an award at preschool one day, her mom brought her to Hans’ to pick out a treat. She stared at the display case for what seemed like forever. “I pressed my nose against the glass, staring into a sea of cookies, brownies with thick frosting and cupcakes with plastic princess ornaments,” she said.
In time, she had a go-to pastry: a chocolate-covered long john, sprinkled with peanuts on top, and no filling.
But it’s not just the memories that prompted her to pursue the project.
Olsen had done some soul-searching after the loss of her first husband in a car accident in 2008. At the time, work was also discouraging, amid the economic downturn. “I said, ‘I want to look for opportunities that feel more uplifting,’ ” she said.
This project could “not fall more perfectly into that category. Nothing but positive vibes are coming off of this bakery,” she said.
Tabs on its progress
Olsen wants to preserve the community feel of the bakery, where people can hang out and not feel rushed, she said.
Although the interior will get a new look, it’ll have “a retro vibe,” while the Hans’ sign will be refurbished.
Champlin resident Teresa Dahl-Dehrer worked behind the counter when she was in high school in the mid-1980s. “I remember practicing and practicing until I got the OK to be able to write on cakes,” she said.
Now she’s looking forward to introducing her daughter to the place, to “try their goodies and see if they are just as good as I remember,” she said.
Pete Turok, who leads the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, said he’s been fielding lots of phone calls from people wanting to know if the rumors about Hans’ reopening are true. It shows that “it’s a regional pull, not just local. It’s kind of a landmark,” said Turok, who acknowledged a hankering for a beehive.
Anoka City Council Member Jeff Weaver has a soft spot for the bakery. “You would stand in line with these wonderful smells, the cases with all of the doughnuts and turnovers and other delicious items. You could never leave with just what you came for. You would always leave with something extra,” he said.
He said the bakery’s comeback is good for the area, too. “A challenged property will come back to life, and hopefully it’ll have that grand allure of what was once a very thriving business,” he said.
Blaine resident Lisa Kauppi, a baker at Hans’ for over 20 years starting in 1984, is hopeful that can happen. Kauppi, who’s been rehired by Olsen, is looking forward to returning.
When she first clicked on the bakery’s Facebook page, she recognized the names of countless customers from the past. “It was a flood of emotion,” she said. “It’s exciting to think it’ll be brand new, starting over fresh.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.