Dinkel’s Bakery, open since 1922 and owned by three generations of the Dinkel family, who made countless cakes to celebrate and grieve over the decades, will close permanently at 5 p.m. Saturday in Chicago.
“I was here about 4:30 a.m.,” said Nicole Udrow, the first person in a line of 50 or so an hour before the doors opened at 7 a.m. “I currently live up in the Edison Park area, but I’m taking orders for the entire family from Dixon, Illinois, up to the Wisconsin border.”
She was hoping to get some homestyle cakes.
“That’s their famous buttercream cake with either a chocolate or vanilla filling,” Udrow said. “Every birthday, that’s what we got. We didn’t look forward to the presents; we looked forward to the Dinkel’s cake.”
Many customers have been coming to the Lakeview neighborhood bakery in the past few weeks for their final Dinkel’s cakes.
“Yesterday, there was a 65th wedding anniversary,” said Luke Karl, general manager. “They’ve been getting their cakes here their entire marriage, and probably before that, they were saying.”
Karl started working at the bakery in 2008. He got in for his final shift at 4 a.m.
“Today’s just going to be a bake off,” Karl said. “We’re trying to bake off as much Danish and coffee cakes and cakes and doughnuts as we can.”
Dinkel’s Bakery & Cafe General Manager Luke Karl, left, ices cupcakes for one of final times on April 30, 2022. (Vincent D. Johnson/for the Chicago Tribune)
At one point he was supposed to take over the bakery from owner Norm Dinkel, his former father-in-law.
“There’s always a chance,” Karl said. “He and I have a wonderful relationship.”
Dinkel sold the property at 3329 N. Lincoln Ave. on April 5. He announced the closing of the bakery the same day. Dinkel retains the business and all the family recipes, including their bestselling stollen, a golden mosaic of fruited bread.
Three bakers were the first to arrive at 2 a.m. on the final morning.
“We have kolaches,” Sergio Hernandez said, releasing a warm blast of buttery sweet aromas while pulling trays from a walk-in oven. “We did three different flavors: raspberry, cheese and apricot. We still have some fruit coffee cakes in the oven.”
Hernandez, originally from Mexico City, has been baking for the past 20 years and started working at Dinkel’s about eight years ago.
“There are a couple of things that are my favorites, and I’m gonna take for the family,” he said. “Kolaches, stollen and some of the doughnuts too — my kids love them.”
He’s trying to find another place to work.
“These years were some of my favorite years,” Hernandez said. “I learned a lot in this place. I had nice co-workers. And Mr. Dinkel and Luke, they’re very nice people.”
Dinkel sold the property to Senco Properties.
“I have a three-month lease,” he said. April was the bakery’s final month in business, with the last lamb cakes beribboned and boxed for Easter. “In May, we’ll get the equipment auctioned off. And then in June, we’ll get it cleaned up the way the new people want it.”
The sale did not include the bakery’s iconic neon sign.
“I was going to tear it down,” Dinkel said, “only to find out that there’s some significant value to collectors. So I’m going to auction it off.”
Customers line up down the block before Dinkel’s Bakery & Cafe opened for the final time April 30, 2022. (Vincent D. Johnson/for the Chicago Tribune)
Donley Auctions in Union, Illinois, will begin taking bids sometime near the third week of May. The proceeds will be donated equally between the Little Sisters of the Poor and Misericordia.
“This way, I’m going to take care of the young and the old,” Dinkel said. “And I think that’s a nice way to go out.”
His son, Eric Dinkel, came in from Denver, Colorado, to help on the final day.
“I grew up working here,” he said. “And worked here for a number of years in my 20s, then decided to be a teacher.”
He teaches high school science.
“The elephant in the room question is, why am I not taking over?” Eric Dinkel said. “I gave it a go, and I love it, but it’s just not my thing. I went into my mom’s business. She was a teacher, so I got into that world. That’s just where I resonate in this life.”
He’s been reminding his father there’s something good about deciding what to do about your life, and not having it decided for you.
“He’s worked hard,” Eric Dinkel said. “It’s time for him to take his retirement and start a new chapter.”
That new chapter includes writing a book about the history of the bakery, with recipes for professional and home bakers, possibly out for Christmas.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to talk about the downs,” Norm Dinkel said. “But we’ll talk about the ups.”
It’s the end to an epic immigrant family’s era of loves and losses that spanned more than a century.
“My grandfather, Joseph Dinkel, came over from Germany in 1905 or so,” Norm Dinkel said. “How did he end up in Chicago? I don’t know. But he came over as a certified master baker.”
Joseph Dinkel got a job at Schulze & Burch Biscuit Company on the South Side and worked there for a number of years.
“Meanwhile, his wife, my grandmother, Antonie Dinkel, came over on her own dime,” Dinkel said. “Because the story had it that if she didn’t like the United States, then she was going back to Germany. She didn’t want to be obligated if he paid for her passage. She was a pretty independent woman.”
German bakery owners who did go back home to visit were gone for months at a time, because of the time it took to travel.
“My grandfather would come in and run their bakeries for them,” he said. “And in all cases when the bakery boss came back — that’s what they called bakery owners back then — the bakery was running much better. Much better product and they’re making a lot more money. So my grandfather said, ‘I think we can do this.’”
In 1922, the couple took over a bakery and renamed it Dinkel’s. It stood across the street from where their business would go on to stand for 100 years. He baked, and she sold.
“In ’26, they moved across the street,” Norm Dinkel said. “People said, ‘You’ll never be a success moving to the east side of Lincoln Avenue, because people don’t like to shop when the sun is on that side of the street.’ This was way before air conditioning was ever around. My grandpa said if they want good baked foods they’re going to have to cross the street.”
And they did.
“He bought the building where the cafe is now in 1926 for $72,000,” Dinkel said.
But the Great Depression hit in 1929.
“My grandfather had borrowed a lot of money from Lakeview Bank,” said Dinkel. “So he went over to see the folks at the bank. Unlike today, they said, ‘Hey Joe, we don’t want to be in the bakery business. We’re in the banking business. So you pay us out what you can, and we’ll work it out together.’ And he did. That’s how the bakery got through the Depression.”
They were open seven days a week from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. In 1934, they expanded and built a new section.
Around that time, the bakery was open on a Saturday night.
“A hold up man came in and shot my grandfather in the back,” Dinkel said. “My grandfather survived the bullet wound, but he lost interest in the business.”
“I guess if you got shot in your own business, you might become a little hesitant.”
“My father was going to the University of Illinois in Champaign,” Dinkel said. “He wanted to become a lawyer. He didn’t want any part of the bakery business.”
His father, Norman Dinkel Sr., dropped out of college and eventually took over the bakery.
“My mother told me when Christmas came, everyone would work from 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and closed the store at 10 p.m.,” Dinkel said. “And everybody would go get cleaned up, wear black tie, cocktails were served at midnight, and Christmas dinner was served at two o’clock in the morning.”
Norman Dinkel Jr., the 3rd generation owner of Dinkel’s Bakery, stands next to Clara Rostan at the bakery on May 1, 1972, in Chicago ahead of its 50th anniversary. (Walter Kale / Chicago Tribune)
Norman Dinkel Jr. was born at Ravenswood Hospital on April 11, 1944.
In 1946, they built the existing store, and the neon sign went up.
“In the ’50s and ‘60s, we would do 200 or 300 graduation cakes easily on a weekend,” Dinkel said. “But it was very easy back then. You’d use the school colors. ‘Congratulations, Harry, Class of ‘62.’ That was it.”
He went to grade school at Queen of All Saints; high school at Northwestern Military and Naval Academy in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; then Lake Forest College. He fulfilled his father’s original plan to become a lawyer.
“I went to Loyola law school, class of ‘69,” Dinkel said. “And then I practiced law for a couple of years.
He worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Chicago as an enforcement attorney.
“Family businesses, they’re not easy,” Dinkel said. “I used to have terrible disagreements with my late father. If he were alive today, I would apologize profusely.”
In 1972, Norman Dinkel Sr. told his son to come into the bakery business or he was going to sell it.
“I talked to a couple of senior partners at law firms,” Norman Dinkel Jr. said. “I asked them, ‘If you could lead your life over, would you want to practice law or own a business?’ And all those lawyers who owned their own law firms said, ‘Actually, I think I’d rather own my own business.’ So that’s how I made the decision to get into the bakery business.”
He and his late wife, Holly Dinkel, raised two daughters and one son in the bakery. There are now five grandchildren in the family.
“I’ve done it for 50 years,” Dinkel said. “I was icing cakes last week, and as much as I think I can still ice 100 cakes easily, the parts don’t work like they used to.”
He’s had help from about two dozen employees.
“The succession plan was that my daughter was going to be the idea person,” Dinkel said. “And Luke, my former son-in-law, was going to be the implementer of those ideas.”
Unfortunately, they divorced, and she moved out of Chicago.
“He’s got the best baking instincts ever and a wonderful attitude,” Dinkel said. “I am so sorry that this is happening. It would have been much easier to have kept the business going, and I walked away from it.”
“I’m emotionally moved by all the customers and all their memories,” Dinkel said, his voice breaking. “All the family events that our little bakery became a part of. It’s just overwhelming.”
On his 79th birthday April 11, he didn’t celebrate with any of the cake that he and his family have made for 100 years.
“Nobody was here,” he said. “I had dinner all by myself in my house very late, because it’s been chaos at the bakery.”
“Everybody in the family is flying in for the closing,” Dinkel said. “We’re gonna have a little family party tonight. And we’re gonna have white rose cake, brownie torte, and black forest cake.”
What’s white rose cake?
“It’s a combination of chocolate and vanilla cakes, white chocolate mousse, vanilla buttercream with chocolate ganache poured on top and one buttercream rose on top,” he aid. “That’s one of my favorite cakes.”