Jennifer Billock covers Chicago’s baking history in her new book, “Historic Chicago Bakeries.” In this story, she shares some of the history she uncovered.
LAKEVIEW — Norm Dinkel Jr. never wanted to be a baker.
Dinkel was a lawyer when his father — who took over Dinkel’s Bakery after his own father got shot in a holdup at the shop — told him he was quitting and selling the family business. Dinkel took over, spending 50 years at the Lakeview bakery at 3329 N. Lincoln Ave.
On Saturday, Dinkel saw the business through to its end. The beloved bakery was flooded with customers who came for its final day before it closed. They lined up before the shop opened and waited for hours, picking the pastry display cases clean.
Meghan Corbet and Dan Carli ventured from Bucktown to get Dinkel’s one last time. Carli grew up in the city and is “devastated” Dinkel’s is shutting its doors, as he’s gone to it “pretty much [his] whole life.”
“The family text chain has had pictures of cakes for weeks,” Corbet said.
Carli’s final-visit wish list consisted of a Danish, a bear claw and doughnuts, he said. And “something with Dinkel’s frosting,” Corbet added.
Like many Dinkel’s regulars, Carli and Corbet are big fans of the shop’s signature frosting. According to Carli family legend, his grandma “once conned a Dinkel’s family member into giving the frosting recipe,” Corbet said — noting the rumor remains unconfirmed.
The two were among a crowd of more than 50 who had lined up at the bakery by 9:30 a.m. Saturday. In the line was Gene Welsh, who said he expected Dinkel’s would be out of Bismarcks and other goods by the time he hit the cashier — but he would wait regardless because “it’s just nostalgic to come back.”
Welsh said he’s been to Dinkel’s thousands of times. He lives about five minutes away and has tried to visit more often since the closure was announced.
“It’s either here or the YMCA,” Welsh said. “Usually I end up here.”
It’s a “bummer” to see a neighborhood pillar close, Welsh said. But the closure does show the Dinkel family “and their name is worth a lot more than monetizing” the company, he said.
Eric Abramovitz, the “bakery bouncer” who was monitoring the closing-day line, said he started working at Dinkel’s six years ago. People started to line up at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, an hour before the bakery opened, he said.
Abramovitz said he’s heard “hundreds of stories,” including many touching ones, from customers about their connection to Dinkel’s. One memory that sticks out to him: Seeing a shipping receipt where one sibling had ordered a goodie for another and written, “I know Dad’s not here to enjoy it, but I hope this makes your Christmas a little better.”
Abramovitz said he’ll miss the people at Dinkel’s the most — ”and the smells.”
“These are my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Mr. D himself is like a dad to me.”
‘Dinkel’s Was One Of Those Institutions’
Though Norm Dinkel Jr. has been running the business since his father left, the bakery has a longer history.
Dinkel’s opened in 1922, at a time where Chicago had about 7,000 bakeries because not many people had kitchens or space for making and storing baked goods, Dinkel said during an interview for “Historic Chicago Bakeries.”
Joseph and Antonie Dinkel bought the old Hopfner’s Bakery — Hopfner later reopened after the Depression — and turned it into Dinkel’s. They moved locations in 1926, settling in the building where Dutch Boy Paints were invented. They stayed in business through the Great Depression thanks to the generosity of Lakeview Bank, which allowed the Dinkels to pay what they could, when they could, until everyone was back on their feet.
Over the bakery’s tenure, Dinkel’s became famous for stollen, sweet rolls, coffee cakes and more.
“Dinkel’s was open from 5 a.m. until 11 in the evening, seven days a week, because people would shop,” Dinkel said. “The same person may shop at the bakery twice, or three times a day.”
Dinkel’s had a major impact on the bakery world as a whole, too.
Antonie Dinkel, who worked the front while Joseph Dinkel baked, invented a counter-height case called the Chicago Showcase. The specialty case meant she didn’t need to bend down whenever someone ordered something. And Norm Dinkel Sr. invented the original unbaked frozen cheesecake in 1958.
Norm Dinkel Jr. became something of a celebrity, as well. During a visit in April, he emerged from the back of the bakery and someone whispered, “It’s him! It’s Mr. Dinkel!”
The entire crowd — which snaked in a long line throughout the main bakery and the seating area — went quiet and craned their necks to see Dinkel.
Dinkel plans on retiring and had no one left to take over the shop.
“It’s sad,” said customer Cathy Gately, who went to Dinkel’s for about 40 years. “I remember when I was young, going into the neighborhood bakery after Mass to get a little pastry. Dinkel’s has a small community, down-home atmosphere. It’s comforting.”
Gately’s friend, Carol Pijanowski from suburban Countryside, got hooked on the community feel of the bakery.
“I started coming here when I would dog sit my brother’s dog,” Pijanowski said. “It was wonderful. I’d take a little walk and then I could walk off my doughnut. You hate to see them close because there’s nothing like it. It started out for me with just a cup of coffee and a doughnut. I had to come one more time.”
Over the course of the bakery’s life, Dinkel’s became an integral part of customers’ identities. It was there for holidays, birthdays, celebrations and as a way to commune with the city.
Customer Rebecca Lehmann’s family had been going to Dinkel’s since the bakery opened. The tradition started with her great-great-grandmother Johanna, an immigrant from Posen, and stretched out over the next six generations.
“[Johanna] would stop at Dinkel’s on the way to pick up my grandfather from school so that he could have a treat when he got out,” Lehmann said. “Later, my dad would always bring Dinkel’s home from Chicago trips. Once I moved to Chicago, I was sure to bring cupcakes home for my nieces. It’s a tradition that is very much a part of our family’s history and identity.”
When Lehmann saw Dinkel’s was closing, she immediately placed an order for a fudge lamb cake — an Easter specialty — and a few other treats to bring to her family.
“It’s hard to understate the ‘identity’ piece of it, which I’m only realizing now that they’re going to be gone,” she said. “We don’t know much about my grandfather’s family before they arrived in Chicago. We know nothing about my grandma, who was born at St. Vincent’s. So what we have in terms of family history is Chicago, and Dinkel’s was one of those institutions we could point to that gave us a sense of having real, deep roots in a place.
“It’s part of how we can say, ‘We’re from here. We’re Chicagoans.’”
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