LODI – The hard wood floor at Weber’s Bakery has seen its share of flour, sugar and excess colored sprinkles.
This is also where David Weber rode his tricycle as a toddler, made pretzel cookies as a 12-year-old, stood each summer while he rolled out thousands of buns for the Lodi Fair and, five years ago, had thoughts of suicide after a divorce.
But Weber, 56, has found God, has a new wife and a Christian faith that helped him through the past week, during which scores of customers came to buy one last loaf of bread, sacks of pumpkin fry cake doughnuts, bags of homemade noodles and boxes of monster cookies.
Closing a family business is hard, especially one that has been part of the fabric of this Columbia County city’s downtown for more than 92 years.
“I have a lot of emotions,” Weber said. “I feel really bad, like I’m letting my grandpa down and my family and my city. It’s tough.”
The overhead is too much and the revenue is not enough. So the retail portion of Weber’s closed on Saturday. Weber, who owns the 1866 building, will try to continue servicing his wholesale accounts and making the Tom and Jerry batter that he distributes to more than 40 locations around the holidays. But 161 S. Main St. is no longer a regular stop for sweets and breads, coffee and camaraderie.
The closing comes just a few months after the Northern Edge restaurant closed and Bushnell Jewelers, just a few doors down, shuttered its doors after decades in business. The downtown is still home to Lodi Sausage Company, Bushnell Ford, Hamre Gunderson Funeral Home and Vern’s Appliance Sales and Service, but the loss of Weber’s marks the end of one of the city’s oldest businesses and leaves another Wisconsin community without a classic, standalone bakery.
“It’s very sad,” said Mary Klein, 64, a retired fifth-grade teacher who walked to Weber’s for caramel doughnuts during lunch when she was in high school. “It was a mainstay, and now it’s going to be gone.”
Middleton has Scott’s Pastry Shoppe and Clasen’s European Bakery, Stoughton is home to Fosdal Home Bakery and Madison has Lane’s, which recently reopened in the Villager Mall after decades of business on South Park Street near West Washington Avenue. Bon Ton Bakery in Jefferson is celebrating its 97th year while New Glarus Bakery traces its roots to 1910. But for most communities in our state, a bakery is only found in a grocery store while convenience stores and national chains like Panera Bread and Dunkin’ Donuts have become some of the main outlets for the daily doughnut, muffin or bagel.
“Anytime we lose or a community loses a community bakery, they’re losing a huge asset. We’ve lost a lot of bakeries over the years who have been the centerpiece of a community,” said Dave Schmidt, Wisconsin Bakers Association CEO. “I know it’s eating at him.”
Weber was Bakers Association board president when Schmidt was hired in 1999, and the two remain friends. Schmidt said about 400 to 500 bakeries operate in the state but many are specialty shops and not the traditional operations that many grew up with.
Weber’s was founded in 1921 by David Weber’s grandfather, John Weber, a Swiss immigrant. Weber got the idea for the bakery when the Madison bakery where he was working was embroiled in a strike. So Weber persuaded the owner of the Strand Bakery on Atwood Avenue near Schenk’s Corners to give him a loan to open a bakery in Lodi. David’s father, Bob Weber, a star athlete who went on to play basketball at UW-Madison, ran the bakery for years before David took it over in 2001.
Now, 13 years later, machines at the bakery need parts, the main refrigerator doesn’t work, the front of the building needs painting and Weber has struggled to make payroll. The doughnuts, loaves of bread and other products that he was currently producing in a week’s time was what he once made in a day.
“If you don’t back ’em, you lose ’em,” said Howie Blanchar, who stopped in last week to pick up 20 dozen black rye rolls for his Fitz’s on the Lake restaurant. “It’s a big loss. I get a lot of buns here.”
David Weber has been about as involved in a community as possible. He coached the high school track team, is on the local chamber of commerce board of directors, is an American Legion member and a volunteer firefighter. The business sponsored area baseball teams, contributed to the Lodi Fair and donated a pie each year for the annual charity pie auction.
Borrowing money to keep his bakery open wasn’t an option.
“I can’t borrow money if I can’t pay it back,” he said. “I don’t want to take the risk. We’ve been on a shoestring for the past five years.”
Weber lived above the bakery as a child and was weighed daily as a baby on a balance scale that Weber was still using last week to measure brown sugar, peanut butter, oatmeal and other ingredients for monster cookies. Recipes created by his grandfather were used until the end.
“I hate to see the place close. It feels like a death in the family,” said Jane Geeslin, Weber’s mother.
When Weber first started working for his father, he hated the bakery. “Then it grew on me,” Weber said. His sister, Suzan, was also a part of the business and an expert cake decorator. She died in 2001 of breast cancer.
In 2008, with heart problems and a divorce on his mind, Weber considered taking his life but had a spiritual awakening while in a UW Hospital psychiatric ward. A year later, he met Noel Eedy. They have been married for three years, and she helped Weber refocus his energy on the bakery and make improvements.
And while economics no longer make the business viable, something that saddens Weber, he knows there is more for which to look forward. It’s just not clear right now.
“I’ve realized how God has worked in my life,” Weber said. “God has a plan.”
“I hate to see the place close. It feels like a death in the family.” Jane Geeslin, owner David Weber’s mother