Indie businesses define neighborhoods

Racine’s Jerome Boulevard was an average neighborhood two decades ago. Our bungalow was a good starter home, with not much – besides the lime green basement walls and floor – to set it apart from others on the block.

But I’ve yet to live in another place where neighbors left plates of homemade bakery on the doorstep, to welcome you into the fold. Or had wintry Sunday mornings where it was too awful to drive, but always worthwhile to trudge around the corner to the same cozy restaurant for breakfast.

On one end of the block was Christiano’s, just a box of a grocery store. At the other end was Hammes Tavern, operated by the same family since Prohibition ended in the 1930s.

Both places remain in business, but evidence of these close-knit sub-communities is getting more rare. Today I realize there is added value here, and wherever else independent businesses can thrive.

Cindy Bendtsen understands. Since 1982 she has been selling kringle – a buttery, flakey, circular and fruit or nut filled Danish pastry – at Racine’s oldest family-owned bakery. The dough is rolled by hand; “this is not a cookie cutter system.”

“If you have something to talk about, they don’t know you and don’t care to hear about it” at the big discount stores, Cindy says. “You don’t feel special” as a customer.

Bendtsen’s Bakery, 3200 Washington Ave., has been in the same place since 1934, a four-generation family business that is part of the three-block West Racine retail area. It used to be known as Kringleville.

The nickname stuck because of all the Danish-owned businesses, but today the cultural uniqueness belongs to little more than the bakeries, Bendtsen’s and Larsen, 3311 Washington Ave. (which makes sinful Seven Sisters coffeecakes, and sweet cheese crescents, as well as kringle).

These are not Racine’s only or biggest kringle producers, but they have avoided neighborhood decomposition because of their unusual merchandise and personable customer service.

The same can be said for the original Nelson’s Variety Store, 3223 Washington Ave., which has a cluttered five-and-dime feel, dull wooden floors – and impressive selection of Packer and Badger merchandise (near the artificial flowers and hot popcorn bin).

We also had no problem finding unusual gifts for a friend’s birthday party. It is a sea of disarray that contains treasures, as does the otherwise ordinary neighborhood, whose residents seem to appreciate the hometown feel that I used to take for granted.

Do the merchants in your downtown encourage Girl Scouts to decorate store windows for the holidays? That’s a part of the deal in West Racine, where moms sip steaming coffee and take pictures as the window painters work on a crisp November Saturday.

“You’re fighting these big conglomerates,” Cindy Berndtsen explains. “It’s hard to compete with the pricing. Sweet rolls, breads – you can get them anywhere. But the kringle is something different,” and so is the small business owners’ ability to respond to customer requests and address them by name.

What, besides national chain competition, threatens the retailers’ survival? The declining health of the old buildings, Cindy says, and the younger generation’s lack of interest in taking over business.

At Larsen Bakery, it has been almost one year since proprietor Ernie Hutchinson died. His widow, Patricia, lost a son in 2004, too, but the baking has continued. A daughter and son are involved.

“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “A lot of bookkeeping” besides baking.

Up to 40 people are employed during this time of year; orders for Christmas are taken until Dec. 1. The 30 varieties of kringle are made from an old Copenhagen recipe; sales make up more than one half of the bakery’s business, and pecan kringle is the top seller.

Racine bakeries will make thousands of kringles per day, until the holidays pass. For more about Bendtsen’s Bakery: www.bendtsensbakery.com, (262) 633-0365. For more about Larsen Bakery: www.larsenbakery.com, (262) 633-4298.

For more about Nelson’s Variety Stores: www.nelsonsvarietystores.com, (262) 633-3912.

In Madison, where I live, the push is on to identify locally owned businesses during this busy holiday shopping season. “Friendly Faces, Neighborhood Places” is the slogan of window posters, but the Dane County initiative also is about keeping money in Wisconsin instead of helping a national chain spend it elsewhere.

So if you’re heading this way, check out www.danebuylocal.com or look for the signs of independence in store windows.