Kalamazoo's bakeries are the frosting on the cake

Spot someone in Kalamazoo licking their fingers, or a bit of butter cream frosting on a grinning upper lip, and chances are good that they have been to a Kalamazoo bakery. Three popular bakeries are making Kalamazoo a sweet place to be:
 
Boonzaaijer Bakery
 
Karel Boonzaaijer wanted to go to medical school, not work in a bakery. "But my grandpa was a baker, my uncles were bakers, and so when Opa insisted, I said OK!" he says, his accent hinting of a Netherlands history, but his wide and warm smile proof of a revised passion. No regrets.
 
Boonzaaijer immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s, three diplomas to show for his training as a baker in Holland, and began working as a European pastry chef in Kalamazoo hotels. In 1961, he opened Boonzaaijer Bakery, today located at 126 E. Cork Street, with the family pitching in, wife Maria, his right hand, and their nine children, five of whom still work in the bakery today.
 
"There's a difference between eating and tasting," says Boonzaaijer, leaning forward, eyes alight. "We make the best, even if it costs more. Our customers understand this, and they are willing to pay more for the best."
 
Karel Boonzaaijer passed the business down to his daughter Maria and son-in-law Marty Horjus in 1990, but he is frequently present, watching his children and grandchildren work over the ovens and decorate the cakes and pastries. His standards are high, and he gave his son-in-law two years to meet those standards and show himself worthy of taking the reins of the business. 
 
"I practiced at night to get the writing on the cakes right," Horjus says with a smile. And he exchanges a fond if respectful glance with his father-in-law. He was deemed worthy, and Boonzaaijer nods. "My writing is chicken scratch on paper, but not on cakes," Horjus finishes.
 
"We want to make something here that is unique, something that no one else can make," Boonzaaijer says. He speaks of purity--in ingredients, in lifestyle, in passion, in service. He speaks of continual striving, forever seeking improvement to recipes, of precision in measuring ingredients, and of exceptional customer service. 
 
He speaks of the privilege of working long hours to create delicious treats for the bakery's appreciative customers, returning again and again to purchase cakes, pastries, chocolate éclairs, although Boonzaaijer Bakery has never advertised any of them.
 
"Word of mouth," Boonzaaijer says. "Good, better, best, never let it rest," he recites. "Until good is better and better is best."
 
MacKenzies Café and Bakery
 
The most important ingredient in a good recipe is personal contact, decided John MacKenzie, president and owner of MacKenzies Cafe and Bakery at 527 Harrison Street. 
 
MacKenzie tells the story. "A customer came in and asked for 'the usual.' No one had any idea what that 'usual' was, because no one recognized the customer. As it turned out, this was a first-time customer, and there was no 'usual.' Questioned, the customer laughed and explained that he'd always wanted to say that. 
 
"That's when it hit me," MacKenzie finishes his story. "That's what customers want. Personal contact. People want to be known."
 
MacKenzie is a third generation baker in his family. His grandmother and great aunt ran bakeries during World War II, and his father owned a bakery in South Haven, where MacKenzie grew up. Like many youth, he longed to break free, be unique, but eventually came full circle, continuing the family legacy. 
 
"I was a substance abuse counselor, with a degree from WMU in linguistics," MacKenzie says. "Toward the end of earning my degree, I took a Business 101 class, and the professor said, if you are the best or the worst in your job, you will earn the same. In your own business, be the best and you will earn more."
 
MacKenzie opened his first bakery in Kalamazoo in 1980 with his sister Mary as partner. It was a different industry at that time, he says. "Cakes back then were made with Cool Whip." MacKenzie frowns. "Lots of sugar. I took my dad's formulas from the South Haven bakery and cut the sugar way down, make the fruit more flavorful. People today are much more health conscious. Real food tastes better."
 
In 1997, MacKenzie moved his bakery from Westnedge Avenue to Harrison Street. The People's Food Co-op moved in next door. "An excellent neighbor to have," he says. "This lot was all rubble and trash, a scrub of trees. We built a new building to look like it had always been here, and we put a cornice salvaged from a century-old building into this one. It worked out great."
 
Add the personal touch, serve the "usual" to his customers, and the business has thrived. MacKenzie sells about 400 loaves of artisan bread a day, baked in an immense four-deck stove with 30 loaves per deck at a time. 
 
MacKenzies Café and Bakery also sells cakes, pastries, cookies and donuts. MacKenzie smiles and admits that donuts may not fall into today's health conscious menu, "but if you are going to eat a donut, eat a really good donut."
 
The Victorian Bakery
 
Maria Brennan joked to her husband that she had thought of a name for the bakery she wanted to open: "The Tart Kitchen." He gasped, "no!" and she laughed. Instead the name became The Victorian Bakery, for the Victorian-style house they lived in.  It was in the basement of that Victorian house that Brennan first started to bake her breads, cakes, pies, scones, croissants, and yes, tarts, for sale. 
 
Today, The Victorian Bakery has its own fragrant space, in one-half of the building at 116 W. Crosstown Parkway, shared with Confections with Convictions. Brennan moved her bakery there in December 2010, but continues to sell her goods in Kalamazoo Bank Street and Texas Township farmers markets and in the organic food shops that gave her business its start. 
 
"Sawall's Health Foods was the first to sell my bread," Brennan said. "I wouldn't be in business today if it weren't for Sawall's. I counted. They sell more than 50 products from local merchants."
 
Brennan took a long road to get her breads on the store shelf. Born in Ireland, she met her husband in Kuwait where he served in the Navy, and the two came to live in the States in 2000. European traditions came with her, flavoring her baked goods, kneaded into her breads, pre-fermented for lightness. 
 
"Traditional Irish scones," Brennan lists her specialties, "a different flavor every day. Croissants, Linzer torte, Norwegian almond cake, German chocolate cake, lemon bars, Bavarian pretzels, cheesecakes, tea cakes with Michigan fruits …"
 
It's a long list, and new additions are frequent at The Victorian Bakery. "European recipes are simple," Brennan says. "Not a lot of messing around. No secrets."
 
Brennan started by bringing treats to school for her two sons, "and it grew from there." Baking is a connection to family, to home, to community, even as she admits to missing Ireland on occasion. Kalamazoo, she says, is home now and will remain so, while the breads and sweet things that come from The Victorian Bakery ovens appear in more stores: Beer and Skittles, People's Food Co-op, Black Owl Café, and others.  
 
Brennan uses organic flour that she buys in great quantities, arriving on pallets, for cost efficiency. She can be found baking early every morning, as soon as she has her youngest son on the school bus.
 
"There's a healthy competition in this town between the bakeries," she says. "Every one of us has our own specialty. Kalamazoo is becoming known as a food town, and that's better for all of us."
 
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.    
 
Photos by Erik Holladay.  
 
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