Jen’s Artisan Breads thriving in new home at former Mt. Morris school

Jen's Artisan Breads owner Jen Koertner poses for a photo in her bakery on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. The business is located in the former David L. Rahn Junior High School in Mount Morris.

Mt. MORRIS – Walk down a handful of stairs, open the door to Jen’s Artisan Breads, and you’ll enter a cozy but not cramped bakery. Walls painted a color reminiscent of a summer harvest warm the already-inviting space.

A pair of couches and a trio of chairs surrounding a coffee table about 15 feet past the door are just some of the seats available. To the right, about a half-dozen other small tables are set up throughout what used to be a school cafeteria.

Past those are a few shelves loaded with loaves of fresh bread; a fridge holding select cheeses, fruits and drinks; and a checkout counter with a display case showing off some of the other baked goods for sale.

Depending on the day, you might see someone preparing dough in the kitchen, visible to customers much like it was to the students who once ate there.

“Sourdough is the belle of the ball between the bread and the pizza crust,” owner Jen Koertner said when asked about customers’ favorite bread.

The quiches and croissants also are bestsellers, the self-taught baker said.

“I’ve been told that my croissants compete with what you find in Europe,” Koertner said. “I’ve worked really hard to perfect those.”

Koertner said she fell in love with the style of baking she uses for her breads and pastries while she was stationed in Europe as a member of the Army.

Upon returning to the U.S. in 1992, she “saw a need for those authentic, nonprocessed baked goods,” she said.

The breads sold at Jen’s Artisan Breads are fermented, contain minimal commercial yeast, and use an unbleached, unbromated flour, Koertner said.

Add some salt and water – and sourdough culture for that kind of bread – and you’ve got most of the ingredients, she said.

“The bread ferments, and it develops flavor over that fermentation,” Koertner said. “Because it’s fermented, it has a lower glycemic level. It’s easier to digest. It doesn’t have all the preservatives and junk in it. Then I bake it in a steam oven so you have a nice, crispy crust and a nice, chewy crumb.”

Jen’s Artisan Breads – a dream that came to fruition 11 years ago – moved to the former David L. Rahn Junior High School’s cafeteria Oct. 1 after five years in Pinecrest Grove. Koertner rents the space from building owner Fred Kenney.

“It just continues to go gangbusters,” Koertner said. “It’s crazy, and I’m excited that we’re in this school and this really cool space that we’ve transformed. We get lots of former students … who come in, and they want to see the building, and they really enjoy the space.”

Koertner started Jen’s Artisan Breads in 2013 at the now-closed Irish Lady Farm store and also was selling at the Oregon farmers market. She had a full-time cleaning business at the time.

“As the bread picked up, I just let go of cleaning jobs,” Koertner said. “It has just continued to evolve from there.”

She moved to Pinecrest Grove after about five years. The commercial kitchen there “opened a whole new world of possibilities.”

The move to the old school gave Koertner even more room to continue growing her business, she said.

“Coming here has just added more possibilities – hosting events and maybe the possibility to rent the space for people for baby showers or gatherings or, you know, whatever,” Koertner said.

Jen’s Artisan Breads regularly supplies about 10 wholesale stores, including the SuperValu in Oregon and the Polo Grocery Store. It also provides the Ogle County Brewery in Oregon with its flatbreads and pizza crusts, Koertner said.

She couldn’t say how many people are regular customers.

“A lot of these people in here right now I’ve never seen,” Koertner said, gesturing to the half-dozen folks in her store the morning of Feb. 16. “It’s just more new people coming in.”

On “bake days,” when everything’s freshly made, about 20 people will come into the bakery, she said. Pop-up events such as the pizza night it hosted Jan. 27 can draw upward of 100 people.

“Bake days” thus far have been Tuesdays and Fridays, but Koertner said she’s also planning to start baking Mondays and Thursdays. It’ll mean longer days for her and her employees, who arrive at the bakery about 2:30 a.m. and work a 12-plus-hour shift, but there’s a reason, she said.

“I really see a need, and we’re getting a response, so I’m going to start having fresh quiche and breakfast pizza and some other things,” Koertner said. “I’m going to start having fresh food every day because the people are coming in for it.

“I just love making food for people and doing things that nobody else is really doing,” Koertner added.

Stop in

Jen’s Artisan Breads is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 105 W. Brayton Road, Mt. Morris.

More information can be found on its Facebook page and Instagram (username jens_artisan_breads_).

A grand opening is scheduled for March 9, with a ribbon-cutting about noon.

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.