By The Dozen Bakery just debuted its new location in the old Swiss Maid Bakery building in Harvard, allowing the legacy of a community staple to live on through new ownership and a new menu sprinkled with old favorites.
When Swiss Maid's Harvard location followed the Woodstock location in closing last year, By The Dozen Bakery Owner Brent Nelson said he called John Stricker, whose family owned the business, to give his condolences.
"I was upset about it,” Nelson said. “We've been family friends for many years. Bakers are a small community.”
A short while later, Stricker called Nelson to ask if he might consider buying the Harvard building, where Swiss Maid found its start in the area back in 1968.
“When it closed, it was a family tradition gone kind of, so he said, ‘Would you want to do it?’ and I said, 'Sure, let's do it,'” Nelson recalled. “So John Stricker is my partner in crime here.”
For 26 years, By the Dozen Bakery had only one location in Machesney Park, outside of Rockford, where Nelson's mother, Martha, ran the show until she passed the business down to him in 2015, he said.
“I am a fourth-generation bakery owner in my family. I've been working in the bakery most of my life whether I wanted to or not,” Nelson said, laughing. “My grandfather owned a donut shop and my great-grandmother. Our roots are donut shops.”
By The Dozen Bakery in Harvard offers the best of both worlds, combining Swiss Maid classics such as the Swedish flop – Nelson's current favorite – and By The Dozen staples such as their maple bacon donuts.
"A Swedish flop is a coffee cake and it is separated and then filled with butter cream and streusel on top and it is very, very good," Nelson said.
By The Dozen Bakery boasts a total of 36 donut varieties, and Nelson knows muffins, cupcakes and cakes like the back of his hand. But he said he never baked bread until this year, a skill that would be crucial to offering all of the Swiss Maid baked goods so many locals cherished.
Luckily, Paul Stricker – John's brother who co-owned the bakery with their father – stepped in to show him the way, Nelson said. The two have worked side by side over the past few months to make sure that Nelson could uphold the integrity of the original recipes.
“We're slowly going to roll out the former Swiss Maid products. We do have their breads from their white bread to their Italian Swiss bread, French bread, cinnamon crimp bread,” he said.
Other offerings include Swiss Maid's double chocolate yeast-raised donuts and all of their coffee cakes, which were requested by many.
“The Facebook response was overwhelming,” he said. “I told the girls out front, I said, ‘If you get a customer request, write it down. They're the ones that support us so we've got to listen to them.’”
When the journey to open the new location began in February 2019, Nelson said he had been looking at potential sites to expand his family's business. When John Stricker called him, he thought it was the perfect opportunity for both families.
Perfect, that is, until the onset of the pandemic in March.
The process of Swiss Maid declaring bankruptcy on the Harvard property took longer than expected, which carried them into the early spring of this year, and then there was cleaning, painting and refurbishing to do, he said.
Nelson had hoped to open the new location in August, but the economic impact of COVID-19 forced him to lay off 33 employees, meaning just he and his manager were running the Machesney Park location by day, and he was working on the Harvard location by night.
“My goal was to clean one thing a day or fix one thing a day, just one day at a time,” Nelson said.
He has since been able to hire back 18 employees, some of whom will be staffing the new location at 104 E. Brainard St. in Harvard.
Despite the bumps along the way, Nelson said the first day at the new location went very well, with customers lined up before the store opened at 6 a.m.
As donuts and other goodies flew off the shelves Tuesday, Nelson said his mother encouraged him to pause to appreciate the fruits of his labor.
"She's definitely proud," he said. "She told me to take a minute and sit back and take it all in today. It's been a lot of hard work, but you've got to enjoy it as well."
But Nelson won't rest for long, as he already has plans to open up a third location in the old Swiss Maid building on the historic Woodstock Square.
“We do have plans to open that, I'm hoping early next year, but we’ve got to get this one right, and we've got to get the product right before we expand,” he said.