I’m standing on West Third Street in downtown Red Wing on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Bryan Adams’ “Straight From the Heart” is playing over a speaker, but otherwise the only sounds are church bells, motorcycles, and train horns. Facing me are the storefronts of businesses like Backwoods Framing and Engraving, Wanshura Jewelers, and Red Wing Corner Drug. The building to my left is the Goodhue County National Bank Building.
Red Wing takes town pride to a level reached by very few others. You already know it’s the home of Red Wing Shoes, but have you seen the big, painted Red Wing boot sculptures on the sidewalks? And did you know their school team nickname is the Wingers? Red Wing Wingers. That gets two fist thumps over the heart from this former Wrenshall Wren.
I can see two of those boot sculptures from my position, but I’m not here for sightseeing. I open a white paper bag, take out a maple-frosted cake donut with chocolate drizzle scribbled over the top, and take a big bite. It’s expectedly wonderful.
You guessed it: I’m standing outside Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop.
Hanisch Bakery owner Bill Hanisch (pictured above) was a Winger. He started worked at this bakery during high school, though it was under a different name then. He set a goal to own a bakery within 10 years of his graduation from high school in 1998. After a brief stay on the east coast while he earned a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he returned home and started back at the bakery.
“I take a lot of pride in our community,” he says. “To me, a good downtown, a good community needs a bakery. I look at classic bakers like when Hans [Bakery] re-opened up in Anoka, you look at Grandma’s up in the White Bear, Johnson’s Bakery in Duluth. To see the ones who are still around and what they mean to those communities, it’s very important.”
The bakery has roots in downtown Red Wing that stretch back almost 100 years. Its name serves as a sort of record of ownership. You see, the name of the owner is the name of the bakery. That’s how it’s always been. The first owners were the Quandt family, and the Pirius family bought it in 1944. During the Pirius years, the bakery was relocated to the space it’s in today. The Braschler family purchased it in 1972.
When Bill Hanisch returned home after his time on the east coast, he did so with a hunch the Braschlers might be looking to pass the bakery on sometime soon. He was right: the Braschlers eventually approached him about taking over. Some discussions followed, then some paperwork, then a new bakery name. Hanisch officially took over in 2007 – one year ahead of schedule.
“I’m still learning,” he says, eleven years into ownership. “Every day I learn something different. This is essentially three businesses in one. This is a retail bakery, it’s a wholesale bakery, but you also have a coffee shop. It was suddenly a lot to wrap my head around.”
One of the bakers at Hanisch has been at the bakery for longer than Bill Hanisch has been alive – Randy Adams, who was first hired by the Braschlers 40 years ago. Head baker Rob Harding was brought on by Hanisch, but Harding’s mother was hired by the Braschlers. Several members of all three families have worked, or still work, at the bakery.
“It’s part of running a small business,” says Bill Hanisch. “Everybody pitches in, especially during the holidays. Anyone who can count to 12.”
Bill Hanisch says there aren’t too many small-town bakeries left out there, but the ones who march on are doing so because they’ve been doing it right all the time. He says cutting corners on ingredients is something he has never considered, and won’t.
“If you can’t make a good donut,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what you put on top of it.”
You already know what kind of guy I am. In that bag on that sunny Saturday afternoon, I have six cake donuts: two maple, two chocolate, and two maple with chocolate drizzle. At Hanisch, they lean toward the classics. Bill Hanisch says the bakery produces about an even split between raised donuts and cake donuts, and I only notice one in the bakery display with anything resembling the topping heaps you see on Instagram feeds. It’s a chocolate chip cookie donut, topped with chocolate icing, buttercream, and cookie bits.
I ate one of those before our interview and I call it “a head-tilter.” You need to play the angles with a donut like this, but get it in one bite and the effort will be paid. Remember when we were kids, and had to decide between a cookie and a donut? If you don’t, well, you probably don’t remember having to decide between a Game Boy and a Walkman, either.
“That thing’s a meal,” says Bill Hanisch. “You definitely get done with that thing and you’re like, ‘Well, that was an event.’”
He says the apple fritters are his favorite. They’re unlike most others you’ve seen, if not unlike any others you’ve seen. Picture a cinnamon roll that wanted to be an apple fritter instead. It’s got big apple chunks, eats cleanly, and satisfies. There’s a maple bacon donut that Bill Hanisch wasn’t so sure about at first, but is now.
“I remember when it I was watching the Travel Channel when they first showed Voodoo Donuts doing the maple bacon,” he says. “People were like, ‘You gotta try that!’ and I was like, ‘No, that ain’t gonna work in Red Wing.’ And now that’s our best-selling donut.”
On the cookie shelves, though, you’re probably going to notice the buttercream cookie that looks like it’s got a scoop of ice cream on it. There’s no way you’re missing this thing when you look in the bakery display.
“Don’t plan on taking a nap anytime soon after that,” he says with a laugh.
Speaking of not sleeping, the bakers’ day at Hanisch Bakery starts around 12:30 a.m. By the time the shop opens up at 5:30 a.m., goods are just being set in the bakery display. With donuts, cookies, buns, and breads coming out of the back, baking often goes on into the early afternoon.
Wholesale accounts stretch from the Red Wings area up to Ellsworth and Prescott in Wisconsin, and we’re not just talking donuts and cookies: the buns at restaurants like Slippery’s in Wabasha and Kings Place in Miesville are made by Hanisch Bakery, too.
Hanisch Bakery’s popularity in the region and beyond is undeniable. It was just over a year ago, it was voted by WCCO viewers has having the best donuts in Minnesota. Six years ago, they were voted best bakery in the same poll. A quote from the bakery poll article: “And more than half of all the votes were for Red Wing’s Hanisch Bakery.”
Bill Hanisch credits some of that to the magic of social media, where “Billy the Bun Man” has about 24,000 followers between Facebook and Instagram. He documents bakery life pretty well, though his biggest Internet moment was undoubtedly the weather video that found its way onto some 650,000 screens – and that’s not including news stations like KSTP.
“I finally figured out how to go viral!” he says. “Be out in a snowstorm when there’s a huge lightning bolt! That was kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen.”
But it all goes back to the community connection. Bill Hanisch recently brought about 1200 fish cookies and dressed up in his Billy the Bun Man costume for an event at the local elementary school. The Bun Man also showed up for a “superhero brunch” recently, which honored local police officers and firefighters. Look at the Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop Facebook page and you’ll see the Bun Man is everywhere around town.
“We’re located in the heart of downtown Red Wing,” he says, “and I think we are the heart of downtown Red Wing. It’s pretty cool.”
And some of Minnesota’s best donuts come straight from there.
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