House of Jacobs closes up shop, but popular lefse is still available
Norwegian sweaters, Swedish crystal, Danish iron candleworks and the gnarled-nosed trolls that cross all Scandinavian borders are no longer for sale in downtown Willmar.
With the Aug. 2 closing of the House of Jacobs, the local availability of specialty Scandinavian items has declined, in part, because the Scandinavian population and the desire to hold onto that culture is also declining.
But the supply of lefse, the soft, flat rounds made with potatoes and flour that are the mainstay of many Minnesota holiday meals -- and the reason Dennis Jacobs started his retail business in the first place 22 years ago -- is still in good supply and for sale at local outlets.
Where to get the lefse is the question.
"I get calls every day," said Jacobs. "That's what people want to know."
With a quick nip in the air this week that reminds Minnesotans that fall and winter aren't far behind, taste bud expectations are already gearing up for festive Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday meals that feature a plate of lefse.
Those who don't make lefse themselves have counted on the House of Jacobs to provide that taste of Scandinavian cultural heritage at the family table.
You can still get your lefse.
Just this week House of Jacobs lefse became available at the Heritage Falls Market in New London and Mr. B's Chocolatier in Willmar.
"We've already filled some orders and people are coming in and buying lefse already," said Karen Lindquist, manager of Heritage Falls Market.
"Those of us who love lefse are just thrilled," said Lindquist, who counts herself in that category.
"People just love it around here," she said. "They're very excited to see we're carrying the House of Jacobs lefse."
Lefse -- as well as an assortment of lefse-making equipment and a few "uff-da" coffee mugs and napkins -- can also be ordered and delivered through direct Internet sales at www.houseofjacobs.com.
Rolling out the lefse
Jacobs currently ships out about 125 boxes a day of lefse, mixes and their popular circular boards and cloth covers that are used for rolling out lefse.
A crew of five women and one man has been steadily increasing their daily production of the soft, thin lefse at the House of Jacobs bakery in Spicer to gear up for the fall church lutefisk dinners and holiday customers.
The crew currently hand rolls 600 rounds of lefse a day.
By next week it'll be 750 rounds a day and by the third week in September the tally will be 900 to 1,000 rounds a day.
In a long, narrow sunlit room made toasty warm with large griddles, dough is first formed into uniform balls and flattened with a homemade wooden lefse press. As the pace of the female rollers picks up, Joel Hagen has a hard time keeping up with his job of mixing up the dough and turning the lefse balls into lefse patties that are chilled on a shelf in a walk-in cooler before they are rolled.
At three stations, the women steadily roll lefse at their well-floured tables. Using swift, deft movements with their grooved rolling pins they criss-cross over the dough to make circles, or rounds, of lefse.
Candy Larson, who oversees much of operation, said some of her rounds look more like "clouds" but that Margaret Dokken rolls "perfect circles" every time.
"They just turn out round," said Dokken, without looking up from her work, when asked to explain her secret.
LaRose Johnson, who packages the final product, said she can usually tell when there's a new roller on staff. Their rounds usually aren't so round.
The current staff is well-seasoned, which means there are few lefse flubs to eat during coffee break.
There are two to three lefse rounds on the griddle at one time that are quickly flipped with a long thin stick and removed to make room for a new round.
After it's taken off the griddle, the round is placed on a pile with other fresh lefse and given a quick brush to remove the flour.
Not moving more than a few feet, the women who stand at the rolling board turn one way to place the lefse on the griddle and the other to put the lefse on the pile. There's hardly a second when their hands are not rolling, flipping or brushing a round of lefse.
The women work like a well-oiled machine, said Jacobs, whose 87-year old mother, Bernice, just stopped rolling lefse at the bakery a couple years ago. She taught many of the women how to handle the rolling pin. His late father, John, started making the lefse rolling boards in the 1970s, which helped launch the House of Jacobs business.
Most of the rollers today at the bakery are retired from their career jobs and are in their 60s or 70s but "love to roll lefse," said Larson.
In the back room, where the lefse is cooled, Johnson carefully counts the lefse into piles of three, 12 or 25 (two dozen plus a freebie) and wraps them and seals them into packages that are sold fresh at outlets or frozen for the rush of the busy holiday season.
A season of change
Not having his own retail shop to sell the lefse will take a little getting used to for Jacobs.
Working solely from the Spicer bakery, where lefse will not be sold on a retail basis, Jacobs is saddened, resigned and a bit perplexed about the economic environment that forced his decision to close his downtown shop.
After seeing only steady and stable growth since he opened the business in the mid-1980s, Jacobs said he was surprised when the financial reality of declining sales became evident in the last couple of years.
One of the reasons for the business slow-down is because his elderly customers are dying and the younger generation is not responding to the attraction of items that reflect their Scandinavian heritage.
"It might just be that Scandinavian gift stores are a thing of the past," said Jacobs.
That "eroding customer base" has Jacobs concerned that younger people aren't as interested in family heritage as their grandparents. "We found that to be apparent in the last several years," he said. "Very few kids are interested."
After all, most of the people involved with organizations like the Sons of Norway and events like Syttende Mai are elderly. "That's a bigger issue than the business world," said Jacobs.
The weaker American dollar has made it more expensive to purchase items from Scandinavian countries, he said. His wholesale prices almost doubled for specialty items and his customers balked when those higher prices were put on the price tag at the store.
Competing with big box stores that have also started to carry regional heritage items had also cut into his business.
If he was younger -- Jacobs is now 66 -- he said would've considered moving to a new location instead of closing.
The Willmar Design Center has been trying to improve the downtown business climate and bring new shops there. But Jacobs said some of the long-time downtown businesses have closed or moved to new locations.
Instead he decided to "keep the lefse going" and sell it at businesses that are being run by younger people outside of the Willmar downtown community.
He also intends to expand his Internet sales.
After the emotional good-byes from his employees and customers, Jacobs said he's looking forward to the new changes in how he does business with a traditional food that connects people with their past.