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Humboldt Park's Changes Can Be Seen in 104 Years of Roeser's Bakery Treats

By Paul Biasco | September 18, 2015 5:58am | Updated on February 14, 2016 1:43pm
 (L.) John Roeser Jr. and John Roeser III celebrate 50 years. (R) John Roeser IV and John Roeser III celebrate 104 years in Humboldt Park.
(L.) John Roeser Jr. and John Roeser III celebrate 50 years. (R) John Roeser IV and John Roeser III celebrate 104 years in Humboldt Park.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

HUMBOLDT PARK — To stay in business for more than 100 years, the Roeser family has had to evolve with the times.

Through World Wars, the Great Depression, the dismantling of the "L's" Humboldt Park branch, waves of immigration and crime, the Roesers have found a way.

"The reason we have been here 104 years is that we've continually evolved with the neighborhood," said 61-year-old John Roeser III.

The Humboldt Park neighborhood surrounding their storefront on North Avenue near Kedzie has been home to changing groups of ethnic groups over the years.

Eggs, flour and sugar have all been part of the mix, but the key to the four generations of Roesers' survival has been their willingness to adapt and cater to the tastes of the neighborhood's continuously changing residents.

The latest John Roeser, who is now 27 years old, is about to take over Chicago's oldest family-owned bakery that's remained in its original location at 3216 W North Ave.

"Every time we've changed ownership and switched a generation, the neighborhood has changed," said the younger John Roeser. "Every single time."

As each John Roeser (there are four) has passed the reins from father to son over the past 104 years, the change has almost always occurred in sync with a change in the demographics of the neighborhood.

John Roeser Sr. arrived in Chicago from Germany in 1905 and after a short stint running a wholesale bakery business with a three horse-and-wagon setup, settled into the storefront in 1911.

First it was the Germans and Scandinavians followed by the European Jews and Italians, a Polish population, an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants in the '60s and and now a diverse population that includes a mix of wealth.

"When I was coming in the early ‘70s it was all Puerto Rican almost. Now it's one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the freakin' city," said 61-year-old John Roeser III. "There’s one of everything here."

It's back to doing a little bit of everything.

"You’ve still got a big Hispanic following, an African American following that’s big into the cakes and we’ve got the new people moving into the neighborhood that are into the donuts or the six-grain breads," John Roeser II said.

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When the current oldest John Roeser, the third John, took over in the '70s, the neighborhood was heavily Puerto Rican and crime ridden.

The change from a mostly Polish neighborhood to Puerto Rican meant a change from English to Spanish on the cakes and the addition of bright colors, exotic flavors such as guava and pineapple and fountains.

Everybody loves cake.

Over the years, the quality of clientele also changed.

"I can draw a Latin King crown in a heartbeat. I can draw a cobra in a heartbeat because we were doing them all the time," John Roeser III said of symbols used by street gangs.

Some of the bakery's first elaborately carved cakes were of kings, stakes, crowns and snakes, according to Roeser.

"Those people had the money," he said. "They'd come in and say 'make me something cool.'"

Customers line up inside Roeser's Bakery on an early September afternoon. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

No matter the era or state of the neighborhood, Roeser refused to put up gates on the shop's windows.

"I just wore my white clothes walking down the street," he said. "I was constantly waving my flag of surrender and no one bothered me. We were the only store that didn't have gates on it. You treat people with respect and they treat you with respect."

With the change in times and imminent takeover by 27-year-old John Roeser the fourth, who is already running the day-to-day operations, the bakery has had to adapt to new tastes and demands.

Just as his dad and grandfather did, John IV started working in the bakery when he was 10 years old.

First scraping floors, then washing dishes, moving up to boxing cakes, putting rings around them, icing, decorating and finally baking coffee cakes and donuts.

"You start from the bottom," the younger Roeser said.

John Roeser IV has spent the last years experimenting with new techniques demanded by some new neighborhood residents with a taste for all things artisanal.

John Roeser IV has been working in the bakery since her was 10 years old. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

Some of the more trendy item additions to the menu include cake bites (his version of a cake pop) and red velvet brownies and donuts.

"It's not like you can get a yellow cake, strawberry filling and happy birthday with some flowers on it anymore," he said. "Now there's fondant this, fondant that. They are asking for Gucci purses and all of that. It's big, really big."

Still, there are many products that haven't changed since John Roeser opened the shop in 1911. The cake mix hasn't changed. The Danish hasn't changed.

Bread is bread.

In the end it still comes down to customer service, community and tradition.

While some of the bakery's cakes are straight out of a North Shore wedding magazine, much of the business still caters to long-time residents of the neighborhood.

The bakery still offers a Wednesday special of two loaves of soft, bendy French bread for $2.29, just the way Puerto Rican residents like it, according to John Roeser III.

Those long loaves that bend over the shelf are what people want. 

"To me, I want it like a baguette. I want to grab the thing and have it shatter because that's the old European way," John Roeser III said. "You don't make what you want."

Roeser has also been heavily involved in the local businesses community over the years and started a youth girls softball program in Humboldt Park.

Roeser acknowledges the influx of trendy bakeries, doughnut and pastry shops around the city, but there's a reason why his business has lasted 104 years.

"We are part of people's families in a lot of ways," John Roeser III said. "People come in and say 'you've made my wedding cake, you've made my birthday cake, you've made my grandkids' cake and everything in between.'"

Roeser's Bakery staff in the 1950s. [Roeser's Bakery]

That family includes loyal long-time employees.

One of the bakery's 32 employees has been there 31 years, another just retired after 33 years and four have been there at least 20 years.

Sixty-one-year-old Bob Altier is one of those longtime customers, and he's passed along the tradition to his kids.

Altier comes from a family of seven and his wife comes from a family of eight.

"Between all the birthdays and first communions and different celebrations, we were grabbing Roeser's cakes for one reason or another," Altier said.

His favorite? The pecan coffee cake and its butter-ringed edge.

Both of Altier's sons, a 35-year-old and 26-year-old, have become regulars as well.

"The tradition continues," he said. 

A photo inside Roeser's Bakery from around 1913 including John Roeser Sr. on the right. [Roeser's Bakery]

John Roeser Jr. (left), John Roeser IV and John Roeser III celebrate the 85th anniversary in 1996. [Roeser's Bakery]

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