Carondelet Bakery is a throwback to time when life was much simpler
The 125-year-old shop stands in Carondelet's Ivory Triangle, where farmers once shopped before heading back out to St. Louis County.
BY THERESA TIGHE
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Linda and Bob Smith joke that they are "dinosaurs" because they own, operate and live above the Carondelet Bakery. Their bakery probably is the last in St. Louis where the owner lives upstairs, just 18 steps away from his job, and it's one of only 10 or 11 stand-alone retail bake shops in the St. Louis area, according to the Master Retail Bakers group.
The 125-year-old shop stands in Carondelet's Ivory Triangle, where farmers once shopped before heading back out to St. Louis County. Two great brick ovens are buried beneath the yard. Another stands at the baking room's far wall. The earth in the yard once provided insulation for the ovens. Bakers used wooden paddles on 12-foot poles to put the baked goods in and remove them. The brick from one brick hearth would build a three-bedroom house. Smith now uses a more modern oven installed in the 1970s.
Green glazed brick decorates the shop's front. Inside, gray marble lines the walls, and old-fashioned white and blue tile covers the floor. Round tables fill the aisle for customers who want to snack. The crystal clear glass cases are filled with almond crunch stollens, cream puffs, bread, chocolate-chip cookies and brownies. Everything in the shop is made from scratch with fresh ingredients and no preservatives.
Bob Smith began working in the Carondelet Bakery when he was 13 years old. He scraped, cleaned and swept the floor. He filled containers with poppy, caraway and sesame seeds, greased molds and pans. He made $1 an hour and $13.34 a week after taxes for 16 hours of work. At age 20, when Smith's boss decided to retire, Smith bought the place. He still laughs when ne recalls that he was too young to qualify for a car loan but he could buy a bakery with 18 employees.
The next year, he married Linda Neumann, his high-school sweetheart. He went to St. Mary's. She went to Notre Dame. They met in a Junior Achievement project. She had trained to be a licensed practical nurse, but as the babies came - the couple has four daughters - she worked more in the bakery. Cake decoration became her specialty. The couple sells about 250 wedding cakes a year. Linda Smith meets with every bride trying to fulfill her expectations. An elaborate cake sits in the baker's window. The cake is trimmed with traces of pink and burgundy flowers. Confetti-like strings of icing top the layers. The effect is called Victorian lace.
Bob Smith begins baking at 4 a.m. daily. Linda Smith begins at 6 a.m. He loves the smell of the shop on Saturday when he bakes rye bread. Bob Smith doesn't have much of a sweet tooth but he loves to eat the bread he bakes. Linda Smith does have a sweet tooth. One of her jobs is frying the doughnuts. She says that if she eats one doughnut hole, she will eat a dozen. So she tries to refrain.
The shop is a pretty, bright clean place like a Norman Rockwell painting of the village bake shop and it holds many memories. Bob and Linda Smith smile together as they recall feeding their girls strawberries as they sliced the fruit. Working in their home allowed them to be with their daughters, and the girls' friends liked to visit. There was always a treat, such as brownies or chocolate chip cookies.
"We have good girls," Linda Smith said. She laughs at the mention of chocolate chip cookies. She figures she and Bob have baked more than 1 million chocolate chip cookies in the past 24 years.
Bob says it is more difficult to make it in the bakery business than it was a couple of decades ago. Groceries have bakeries now. The fast-food companies sell breakfast. Even gas stations sell breakfast and bakery goods.
Sometimes Bob and Linda talk about the future. He is 45. She is 44. They wonder whether they should continue in the business for the next 20 years or so. They have no answers.