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October 31, 2012 | 08:58 AMAfter a hiatus of a decade, Bittner's Bakery has returned with Rick Bittner at the helm.
There's another generation in the wings with the same "uncompromising" recipes whetting the appetites of a whole new generation of customers along with those who never forgot the old Bittner's.
Rick's grandfather, Bruno, a European-trained German immigrant baker, found his way to Lake Geneva through stops in St. Louis and Chicago. Bruno rented the Rothengass Bakery at 719 Main St., Lake Geneva, in 1944. It's the current site of Germaine's. The location had been a bakery since about 1900.
In 1947 the short lease ran out and Bruno bought a bakery in Fort Atkinson so he could stay in business, but continued to live in Lake Geneva.
Strangely enough, the man who bought the Lake Geneva bakery lived near Fort Atkinson and commuted to Lake Geneva each day.
At first the two bakers swapped houses, but their wives rebelled. The next logical step took place — they traded bakeries and the Bittner's Bakery tradition continued in Lake Geneva.
Bruno's son, Rudy, joined the bakery and later took over the daily management and ownership in the mid '60s.
Rick, of course, grew up in the business, working through his high school and college years learning from his grandfather and father. An old article in Lake Geneva magazine quoted him as saying, "I didn't ever intend to work as hard as my father." For awhile, that held true but Rick took the helm in 1974. He simply says "the bakery business and its unique ability to be creative, gets in your blood. It is hard work but very rewarding." Besides having worked for his father, Rick had earlier roots in the business, working with his future wife, Millie who worked in the bakery after school and on Saturdays as a clerk. Together they have two sons, David and Chad.
It operated under Rick and Millie's leadership as Bittner's Bakery from 1974 to 1989, when the bakery was sold to an employee. It was still run under the Bittner name until 2002, when an explosion closed it for good.
Rick never strayed from the bakery business. He ran two bakery distribution companies until 2008. Then for two years, he headed the Washington D.C.-based Retail Bakers of America, a national association. Rick is also involved in an import chocolate business that distributes products for the baking industry in North America. But the desire to have that "hands-on" experience never faded.
Last fall, Chad and his wife Amy Peterburs-Bittner, approached Rick and told him they'd like to start up another bakery. Chad runs the Next Door Pub and Pizzeria and has since the family purchased it in 2006. The bakery idea seemed like a logical move to help support the restaurant with desert items.
This came as a surprise to Rick. In an old article in Lake Geneva Magazine, when asked if his sons would be involved, Rick said "I doubt it". However, he added, "Of course, I never planned to be here, either."
The lease on the new Bittner's was signed in spring and opened as Bittner's Bakery, making many of the old favorites and many new products. It's part of the small business complex at 495 Interchange Highway 120. which is anchored by the Shell Station. It is just one business south of the Next Door Pub.
Chad and Amy are the proprietors. Amy has the daily responsibility for the bakery and is in charge of the bakery's future direction. "She is a leading edge thinker and that will be important to making sure the bakery adapts quickly to trends and opportunities," Rick said.
Bittner's Bakery opened with decades of experience. Among those baking veterans was Greg Nettekoven, formerly the owner of Lakeland Bakery. Together the bakery team has more than 100 years of experience.
One thing that hasn't changed is the Bittner baking heritage — which starts with quality ingredients.
"If you're going to make a good product you have to go so far down the product line," Rick said. "And that goes right back to personally selecting ingredients that meet the world's highest standards."
For instance, the chocolate comes from Sweden, cherries are from Door County, flour from selected growing regions, blueberries are from Michigan and pecans come from Texas.
"There's no room for compromising our ingredients and methods," Rick said. "We don't cut corners. If you know how to do something the best way, you can't help but do it."
Rick said that some recipes he still remembers from his grandfather, some come from his travels to other fine bakeries, and others from an extensive collection of bakery manuals dating back as far as the '20s. While he wants to keep things small the limited menu keeps on growing with requests of from former bakery customers. "They'll ask 'can you make this or that?'" Rick said. "So you might as well make it."
"There's tradition and traditional products, but we want to be cutting edge too," Rick said. Unlike the old Bittner's, the new one is no longer downtown. "We like our new location," Rick said. "It is convenient to our restaurant, has lots of free parking, and is ideally located for our core customer group, the area residents."
How about tourists?
"If you're good," Rick said, "the tourists will find you."
But locals are still the most important group, Rick says. And, no wonder, there are six generations of Bittners linked to Lake Geneva. Rick's sons and grandchildren live in Lake Geneva, Rick's grandfather and grandmother are buried here. His parents spent their entire working life in Lake Geneva.
"Our family takes great pride in being involved in community and we see it as a true privilege," Rick said.
The response to our bakery has been gratifying.
"We have people come in with tears in their eyes," Rick said. "A bakery is part of the fabric of community. I don't see us as the owners of two local businesses (the bakery and the Pub), but rather the curator of two establishments that are part of Lake Geneva's history."
Editor's note: Bittner's, 495 Interchange N, is open daily Wednesday through Saturday at 6:45 a.m.. closing at 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. For more information: 248-2330 or firstname.lastname@example.org