Benson Bakery

10 09 2009

By Emily Larson

After working at Benson Bakery for the last 30 years, Becky knows how to make a Napoleon. First she spread a thick DSC_8688custard over a fluffy puff pastry. Then she topped it more pastry, custard, pastry again and finally a layer of vanilla and chocolate frosting, bringing it all with a decorative smear of a knife. Becky is the cake decorator extraordinaire at Benson Bakery in Benson, MN, and she knows the bakery “inside and out,” which includes the customers. “I know who orders the cakes so I can design them how I think they’d like it,” she explained. That’s the beauty of working in a town with a few more than 3,000 people.

Owner Toby Johannessen is the third generation of his family to own Benson Bakery. His grandfather, Norsk Johannessen emigrated from Norway in the early 20th century. Arriving in New York, he then moved westward to find a job. After working in South Dakota, where tough working conditions and low pay made for poor employment, Norsk moved to Montevideo, MN, where he met his wife, Irene. Soon after they settled in Benson where he began to work for the bakery. Toby’s grandfather bought it from the original owner in 1932, his father took over in 1972, and he started managing in 1995, giving the bakery over 75 year of rich history in the same storefront in downtown Benson.

DSC_8726Toby buys his flour from two local mills: Dry Weather Creek in Milan, MN, about 30 miles away, and Nordman Farm’s in Hancock, MN, a mere 15 miles away. When his father owned the bakery, there were eight local flour mills that routinely sent salesman to his bakery. Then, his dad had a plethora of local flour to choose from and didn’t have to ship flour from half way across the country. “When you have local flour you have better control of it because you can talk to the grower and the miller and know if they’re using pesticides,” Toby explained. “That, and customers like it too.” In the last 10 years Toby has noticed a changing consciousness about local food and food safety in general, as many in the Benson community are concerned about the effects of pesticides in humans.

A bakery like Toby’s can be tailored to fit a community. A church group approached him about baking a flatbread. They gave him the recipe and he happily agreed. Now he makes it year-round and it is a consistent seller.  Many of the bakery’s recipes are from his father and his grandfather, and some are from the original owner, including the from-scratch angel food cake. Toby said not many people make angel food cakes from-scratch anymore. The basic white bread recipe has not changed in 70 years. Toby’s yellowing recipe book was propped open on a stand in the kitchen and was opened to Whole Wheat Muffins. Its typewriter text was full of penciled notes on quantity changes and berry additions, and dated by Toby’s father in 1975. Toby estimates that only five percent of the items produced in the bakery are not from scratch, but Toby struggles with these mixes as he does not have direct control over what goes into his bagels or croissants.

Toby gives much of the bakery’s success to the employees and the strong community they create in the bakery. “The DSC_8724people who work here have put their heart and soul and that’s where the strength of the bakery comes from,” he said. The employees bring their knowledge of the Benson community into a bakery rich with heritage, further connecting this historic storefront to the town around them.

To see more photos of Benson Bakery, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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One response

29 07 2010
Solveig Goldstrand

As you can probably see from my name I am Norwegian born in the USA. My mother turns 100 and we are having a party for her on Dec 4th at her senior high rise here in Plymouth. I am planning a Norwegian type spread~totally Americanized, but…would love to order flatbread which we have enjoyed over the years immensely. What about lefsa? Availability, quality, cost? We plan to drive over to Benson in August (my husband designed 9 holes of Benson Golf Club) and I could connect personally with you. I guess I am not asking for anything detailed at this moment, but please let me know about the lefsa. Thanks, Solveig

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