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Benson, Minn., bakery celebrates 80 years

Tonya Johannessen, above left, looks over a list of ingredients for a recipe while her father, Toby, prepares to mix them at the Benson Bakery. The family on Thursday plans to celebrate the bakery's 80th anniversary. Toby is the third generation in the family to own the business. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

For 80 years the Johannessen family has made no secret of the Benson Bakery's most important recipe. Its recipe for business success is on always on display in the very front of its downtown store. Bakery treats as appealing to the eyes as they are to the palate fill the front counters and shelves, where employees who treat the bakery as if it were their own stand ready to help.

"We have wonderful customer service here,'' said Toby Johannessen, the third generation in his family to own this well-known landmark.

The Benson Bakery will celebrate its 80th anniversary under Johannessen family operation on Thursday. Toby and his father, Jerry, attribute the success as much to its great employees as to the bakery products known well beyond the state.

Just how far? Toby Johannessen's neighbor came back from a camping trip to Alaska only to report that when he registered for a campsite, the attendant saw his home address and immediately informed him: "They've got a really great bakery there.''

Of course, father and son have heard it too, including from their peers. At a baker's convention in Minneapolis, two bakers pleaded with them for their peanut squares recipe.

"We get customers coming up -- we're up at Two Harbors -- asking for peanut squares like the Benson Bakery has,'' the women told the Johannessens.

There is in fact quite a collection of recipes kept hidden in the back of the Benson Bakery, and some of them probably date back more than a century. Ragnvald or "Norsk'' Johannessen started his career as a baker and recipe collector in 1923 in Lake Preston, S.D., all by accident.

The Norwegian immigrant had followed a friend to Lake Preston intending to practice his trade as a carpenter, but took a job at the bakery instead. He learned the baker's trade and moved on to bakeries in Redwood Falls and Montevideo. In Montevideo, he fell in love and married his co-worker Irene Axness.

Johannessen started working at the Benson Bakery in 1931. He returned briefly to Montevideo before returning in 1932 to operate the Benson Bakery and, in 1933, to buy it.

Jerry Johannessen grew up in the apartment his father built atop the bakery.

The bakery remains today in its original location in the building Sam Bakken built in 1900.

They have been unable to confirm it, but the Johannessens believe that the building was home to the Benson Bakery from the day it went up.

Under Norsk and Irene Johannessen, it was also a full-scale restaurant. Norsk Johannessen also supplied wholesale baked goods to grocery stores throughout the region.

During pheasant and deer hunting weekends, the restaurant would be so packed with people "we had to pass the dinner plates down because you couldn't get through,'' said Jerry Johannessen.

Jerry and his wife, Carol, took over the business in 1970. Jerry said they scaled the business back to adapt to a changing retail market in rural communities and growing competition from large wholesale bakeries. The wholesale route is smaller today, and the bakery offers a limited lunch menu and coffee bar.

Toby Johannessen and his wife, Debbie, took over in 1996, after Toby worked alongside his father for three years. Toby has added locally raised, organic flours to the ingredients. He will also bake breads for area schools serving local foods.

It takes a staff of 15 full- and part-time employees to operate the bakery today. Some, like Priscilla Iverson, used to drop by after school for a treat and eventually started working at the bakery. Ditto for Deb Wrobleski and Becky Mast, who have been with the bakery for more than 30 years.

"We're like family,'' said Mast.

She also knows there is a large "family'' of Benson Bakery customers out there. There is hardly a day that someone doesn't drop in to introduce their children, grandchildren or friends to the bakery and the treats they loved while growing up, said Mast.

The visitors find everything they remember and more. In 2007 a remodeling project improved the facility while accentuating its historic features.

And, of course, all of the celebrated treats for which the bakery is famous continue to be baked daily, and always from scratch. The bakery's peanut squares, angel food cake with lemon filling, and lefse are probably the best-known of its traditional offerings.

But this bakery does not limit itself to tradition. One of its most popular items is flatbread, thanks to a customer's suggestion (and recipe) listened to years ago.

The three-generation tradition of Johannessen family ownership may continue as well. The current owner's 20-year-old daughter, Tonya, is learning the trade today and said she is thinking seriously about taking over some day.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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