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Johnson’s Bakery - last of its kind in Duluth - celebrates 70 years

Scott Johnson didn't plan to join his family's bakery business.After pursuing urban studies in college, he started doing deliveries for Johnson's Bakery to help out his parents, who owned the business. One thing led to another. He began helping o...

Johnson family
Scott Johnson (left), second-generation owner of Johnson’s Bakery, operates the bakery with the help of his wife, Barb, and son, Chris. The bakery sells made-from-scratch breads, pastries, cookies, rolls and other items. The last long-established family-owned bakery in Duluth, Johnson’s Bakery is marking its 70th anniversary on Saturday. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)
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Scott Johnson didn’t plan to join his family’s bakery business.
After pursuing urban studies in college, he started doing deliveries for Johnson’s Bakery to help out his parents, who owned the business. One thing led to another. He began helping out more, started to bake part time, then started baking all the time.
He was hooked.
“The chemical process in baking was fascinating,” Johnson said. “It’s something where you never know everything. There’s always something to experiment with. There’s always more you can do.”
It changed the direction of his life.
Good thing, too, because if he hadn’t, there might not be a Johnson’s Bakery marking 70 years in business on Saturday. Instead, Johnson continued on with the business after his parents’ deaths in 1997 and 2005, and after his older brother’s retirement 10 years ago.
Now, at 58, Johnson has no plans to slow down.
Besides being a fixture in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood since 1946, the business is the last remaining long-established family-owned bakery in Duluth. Johnson’s wife, Barb, and oldest son, Chris, both work there, and his sister, Sharon, helps with the books. The family also has a retail store in Lakeside, but the baking is done at the main store.
To celebrate its 70th anniversary, Johnson’s Bakery will offer many selections of its baked goods for 70 cents next week at both its stores.
Post-war startup

Johnson’s parents, Bill and Lillian Johnson, opened Johnson’s Bakery on Jan. 9, 1946, in the same two-story brick building at 2230 W. Third St. where it operates today. His father had been a baker at Zinsmaster Bakery. His mother was a teacher who became adept at cake decorating. Both would someday be inducted into the Minnesota Bakers Hall of Fame.
“Mom gave up her teaching career to help Dad, but she didn’t give up teaching,” Scott Johnson said, noting that his mother taught cake decorating for a time at what is now Lake Superior College.
The couple were aided by Bill’s mother, Mary Johnson, an immigrant from Sweden and an accomplished baker. The bakery still uses her recipes for sugar cookies and cake donuts.

In the mid-1950s, they expanded from one of the building’s two storefronts to occupy both and started growing their wholesale business. When Shoppers’ City opened in West Duluth in 1961, they had its first bakery. In 2003, Johnson’s Bakery opened a second store at 4509 E. Superior St. when Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery closed there.

Their baked offerings - including cookies, muffins, pastries, cakes and breads - have built a loyal following over the years. During the holidays, the family’s Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian heritage comes through with their rosette and fattigman cookies, julekake fruit bread and other special offerings.
Many teenagers had their first jobs working at Johnson’s Bakery. The owners also have hired people who had served time to give them a second chance. With one exception, all were successful, Johnson said. Charities aren’t forgotten, either, with the donations of day-old baked goods.
When their father retired in the early 1990s, Scott Johnson and his brother, Curtis, ran the business with their mother until her death in 2005 at age 86. When Curtis retired later that year, Scott Johnson and his sister, Sharon, succeeded as owners. A few years ago, Sharon gifted her share to him.
Lone survivor

At one time, small family-owned bakeries dotted the city. But they gradually closed over the years. Some lost business as supermarkets established their own bakeries and more recently to the rise of food service companies offering cheaper alternatives. Some owners got too old to run their bakeries and had no one to take them over. Some bakeries didn’t survive the economic recession.
So why has Johnson’s Bakery survived?
The bakery’s mix of retail and wholesale customers is a big reason it’s survived, Johnson said. Besides its walk-in store sales, the bakery supplies baked goods to local hotels, coffee shops and caterers.
“We were larger than most,” Johnson said. “With the diversity we had going, we were able to weather the storm.”
Supplying two retail stores and their wholesale customers takes a team of seven bakers covering morning and evening shifts seven days a week. They’re part of a staff of 22 at the Lincoln Park store and bakery. The Lakeside store has three employees.
But ask their walk-in customers and they’re likely to tell you that the quality of Johnson Bakery’s traditional offerings of cookies, pastries, muffins, cakes and breads, coupled with reasonable prices and an old-fashioned neighborhood appeal, has earned their loyalty.
Shirley Sundeen of Duluth stopped in the Lincoln Park store on Saturday and left with several different kinds of breads, fattigman cookies and bran muffins. It was her weekly stop at the bakery. And while there, she had a cup of coffee and a doughnut with a friend.
She’d been going there since it opened in 1946, and she had known the original owners.
“I was one of their first customers,” she said. “I used to entertain a lot, and I came here a lot and would have cakes made here for my parties. And I love their bread. The bread is always really good, not oversalted. The consistency of the product here is really good.”
Steve Barry of Duluth, another longtime customer, also stopped in. He grew up four blocks from Johnson’s Bakery and recalled that as a student at Denfeld High School in the 1960s, he often would walk to school so he could instead use his bus money to buy a long john at the bakery.
Johnson’s Bakery also made the cake for his 1968 wedding, he said.
On Saturday, Barry bought a loaf of Norwegian julekake bread, some doughnuts for his wife and - because it’s still a favorite - a toasted coconut-filled long john for himself.

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