Still At It - Johnson’s Bakery

by Robert Lilligard

70 years. In France, that’s only modestly old. In China or Egypt, I doubt it would be worth mentioning at all. But in America it’s pretty legit. I once did a distillery tour where they talked about the early days of their business, which had only been open ten years. I have garbage older than that (Wild Cherry Pepsi Can, 2002, sleepover with my buddy Scott).

So Johnson’s Bakery, which started four months after World War 2 stopped, is really an institution. During the life of the business, interstates were built, Canal Park was cleaned up, industrial shipping and taconite gave way to medicine and tourism. And Johnson’s just keeps humming along. Countless customers, countless early mornings where the bakers are up way before sunrise, the smell of yeast and flour and butter. It’s timeless. It’s friendly. It’s still with us.

I did some opposition research once there. At the time, my bakery was open at 9 am and we were trying to decide if we should open at 6 am instead. So I went to several venues around town—3rd Street, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera—as soon as they opened and waited around for the first hour to see what kind of traffic flowed through. It was a winter morning at 7am when I stopped by Johnson’s now-closed Lakeside location. The sun was not up. But the customers were. There was a table of older men laughing and talking about the old times while sipping affordable coffee and munching on doughnuts. When I’m an old man, I hope that’s how I’m spending my mornings.

While Johnson’s sells cookies and bread, my main reference point there is the doughnuts. I don’t think I’m alone in that. These fried delights take up a large portion of the display case, and when I see other customers there it’s often what they’re looking for too. Light and airy fried cinnamon rolls or apple fritters are a delight. You’ll find the heavy beauty of jam filled doughnuts, as well as custard filled for those of you who haven’t caught on to the fact that jam filled is always better. Simple cake doughnuts are crumbling and soft. I prefer them with sticky sweet white icing, which highlights the pure interaction between doughnut and topping. But you can also get them in chocolate if you insist on being wrong.

For the record, my bakery did start opening at 6am. We also, both for irony and convenience’s sake, started having our bakery leadership meetings at the Johnson’s in Lincoln Park. My brother and I meet there most weeks to talk about plans for the business. We feel obligated to buy something if we’re going to sit at a table, and since both of us would like to lose weight doughnuts are a tough sell. I generally cave. I’m the older brother so it’s my responsibility. One week I felt unusually cheap and decided to just get a single doughnut hole. I went up to the counter and ordered. The man there waved my money away.

Here I am, ready to buy something because I want to support the bakery. Here the baker is, giving it away for free because he wants to give a hand to a regular. That’s charming. That’s real. I understand why they’ve been around for 70 years.