A casualty of the 2008 financial meltdown, Luke Karl started working part-time at Dinkel’s Bakery in West Lakeview, 3329 N. Lincoln Ave., after losing his job with A.C. Nielsen. Now he’s general manager of the joint, a meteoric rise to be sure at a business that dates back to 1922.
Oh, did we forget to mention that he’s also the boss’ son-in-law? And that he has baking in his blood?
Karl met Sandgren Dinkel, whose father Norm Dinkel Jr. is the third generation to helm the family bakery, when both were on “hiatus” from college and working at Winter Park Resort, Colorado. He eventually earned a degree in statistics, which is a bit like Clark Kent studying journalism to hide his true identity, and the pair settled in Chicago.
“I come in here humble,” Karl says of joining Dinkel’s long-established operation. We’ll grant him a certain modesty; after all he has a tendency to refer to his father-in-law as “Mr. Dinkel” and is upfront about his on-the-job training and continuing education classes at the French Pastry School. But when it comes to baking, his pedigree is nearly as impressive as his wife’s save for one tiny hiccup.
Turns out his grandfather was a third-generation baker in Karl’s native Kansas City. “The only difference is, my dad didn’t take over the business,” he says. Though the Karl family bakery closed shortly before he was born, young Luke grew up across the street from his grandparents’ house, where he studied at the master’s elbow. “He was always baking something,” Karl says of his grandfather, “cinnamon rolls, springerle, that’s always been one of my favorites.” In fact, Karl hopes to add the anise-flavored cookie, a traditional German sweet, to Dinkel’s lineup.
So credit the depressed U.S. economy with bringing Karl back to his roots, and true calling. “I didn’t intend for this to become permanent, but it got to the point where I realized, ‘I’m enjoying myself here.’”
These days, Karl is focused on presenting fresh ideas to Mr. Dinkel and helping to reinvent a brand he admits is not exactly considered “modern.” To that end, plans are in the works to open up a cafe next door to the bakery’s main location, ironically a space that housed the original Dinkel’s.
“There’s no set date but I’m hoping, ‘hoping’ being the operative word, for mid-September,” Karl says. Though he’s still working on the menu, it will likely consist of two to three breakfast sandwiches, salads, soups and six to eight lunch sandwiches.
One of the goals is to turn Dinkel’s into a year-round as opposed to seasonal destination. “We do our share of birthday and wedding cakes,” Karl says, “but Christmas and Thanksgiving are our bread and butter, no pun intended.” With the cafe, he hopes to increase sales and foot traffic in warmer months.
But the driving force behind the expansion, Karl admits, is bread.
Time was when there was a bakery on nearly every corner of Chicago and people would purchase their daily, and we do mean daily, loaves from Mom and Pop shops. Today the number of full-line bakeries has dwindled to the point where Karl can count them on less than one hand: Dinkel’s, Roeser’s, Swedish Bakery and Lutz’s. “Then you’ve got cupcakeries,” he says.
The cafe would give Dinkel’s an excuse to ramp up its bread production, if not to the level of its past hey day, then certainly a boost over current amounts. Look for artisan loaves of pretzel bread, honey whole wheat, butter crust and ciabatta. “We’re going to make sure we master and produce staple-type breads,” Karl says, and that includes baguettes, which Dinkel’s hasn’t turned out for some time. “Nobody thinks of us for bread,” says Karl. “The cafe could change that.”
Why broaden their product offerings when other shops, Cookie Bar and Doughnut Vault spring to mind, are carving out ever narrower niches? Karl pauses. “That’s a good question. I guess because it’s part of our history, our identity.” On a practical level, diversification also makes Dinkel’s less susceptible to the vagaries of trends. “It’s tough for a cupcakery if cupcakes go out of style.”
Trends are something Dinkel’s has certainly weathered over the years. Most recently there was the low-carb craze, which mercifully is falling by the wayside. Then came the cupcake frenzy, which is sliding a bit, according to Karl, and the current resurgence of doughnuts, a wave Dinkel’s is happy to ride. Gluten-free is growing, as is the move toward zero trans fats. “We could change, but it would be tough,” Karl says of the latter. “New York City has done it and it’s been a sheer nightmare for bakeries.” You know why the frosting you make at home never tastes as good as the stuff from your local bakery? Um, yeah, that would be trans fats.
Another fad, reality television, has proven a double-edged sword. “A lot of people get these ideas from ‘Cake Boss,’” Karl says. “It takes a whole week to make a cake like that and they don’t cost a couple hundred bucks. Try two, three, four or five-thousand dollars.” But on the positive side, television has raised the profile of neighborhood bakeries and placed a renewed emphasis on quality and freshness as opposed to convenience. It’s also encouraged a new generation to explore the pastry arts.
“I think people are fed up with traditional routes of finding careers. You’ve got all these pastry schools in Chicago; it’s not cheap and they’re full. Younger people are just following their dreams,” says Karl, counting himself among that camp. “Before, I was sitting in a cubicle. Now I’m not just behind a desk upstairs crunching numbers. I’m here on a Saturday, icing cakes.”
It’s that personal connection between the Dinkel family and its customers that Karl believes is ultimately more important than any passing fancy. “In general, I think Chicagoans are aware of the make-up of their community,” he says. The movement toward local food, really just a throwback to an earlier, less aut0-centric culture, has many Lakeview residents choosing to patronize homegrown small business over chains.
“I can go to Paulina’s [Meat Market] and maybe I’ll pay a little more, but I know he’s a good business operator,” Karl says. “I feel like that’s what we’re doing at Dinkel’s. You’ll see me, my father-in-law, my wife, my daughter. It makes things more accessible.”
If fact, you’d be hard pressed to find Karl anywhere but Dinkel’s. He and Sandgren, who manages Dinkel’s retail staff, along with their 14-month-old daughter (make nice, she’ll likely own the place one day) live nearby. “Her dad thought we were crazy,” says Karl, largely because the space required a fair amount of renovation. During the process, the pair came across a stash of old letters from a homesick Swedish immigrant.
It seems no matter how much you look forward, it’s impossible to escape the past.