When Larry Bennison opened Bennison's Bakery at 1000 Davis St. in Evanston in 1938, he brought a love of dairy from his native Wisconsin, preparing his goods with fresh cream, butter, buttermilk and eggs.
As the bakery prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary in October this year, owner Jory Downer believes that emphasis on fresh ingredients is still the secret to Bennison's success.
“We try not to skimp on anything when purchasing ingredients," says Downer, who took over the shop from his father, Guy Downer, who bought the bakery in 1967. "Our croissants are all butter. We use a lot of imported chocolate. We respect the process of baking. There are no shortcuts here.”
Jory Downer began working at the bakery in 1975, learning from his father and attending culinary school.
“I’ve always enjoyed it," Downer said. "It’s never been coming to work for me. It’s not something I didn’t look forward to doing every day.”
Downer says his formal education gave him inspiration for ways to improve the business and keep it growing in a modern age.
"I stumbled across a baking school in Minneapolis that was founded by two French guys," Downer said. "Once I tasted the quality of the product of that school I thought, 'We had to have that.”
He began working toward that goal in the '90s, when he imported a bread oven from Italy. Now Bennison's menu ranges across Europe, including Bavarian pretzels, Viennese strudel, German and Italian breads and the extremely popular French macarons that come in eight flavors, including raspberry, passion fruit and salted caramel.
“It’s unimaginable to me how many we sell,” Downer said.
Guy Downer, now 89, still works at the bakery four days a week. Jory's 28-year-old son has also started working at Bennison, continuing the family legacy by attending baking school in Germany. While other bakeries have seen their sales hurt by the economic downturn or increased focus on healthy eating, Downer said Bennison's business has never flagged as people continued to head to the shop to satisfy their sweet tooth.
“People come here, they’re doomed and they know it,” he said.
The spot has built up some extremely loyal customers over the decades. One family has come for a poppy seed coffee cake every Christmas Eve for 33 years, while multiple customers line up at the register seven days a week for a morning coffee and pastry. But Bennison's has focused on attracting new customers as well by selling their products at farmer's markets in Evanston, Northfield and Chicago.
"That gave us a lot of exposure," Downer said. “It’s been phenomenal. Year after year, it’s just more and more.”