"I know what I want to do for the rest of my life."

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

What do the Pfister, the Milwaukee Athletic Club, Comet and Fuel Cafes, the Hi-Hat, Sanford’s, Trocedaro, St. Bessie’s, The Social, Sol Fire, Sendik’s and the 300 Club at Miller Park all have in common? You might guess, with a group as wide-ranging as that — nothing. But the answer is Wild Flour Bakery, which bakes wholesale for all of the above. Because of that, they all have Greg and Dolly Mertens, the owners of Wild Flour, in common. You might say Greg and Dolly are the leaven in Milwaukee’s yeast. So much the better for us.

During a recent visit to the couple’s beautiful, Mayor’s Design Award-winning bakery on 28th and Lincoln, Dolly shows me with beaming pride the stripped original woodwork in the 80 year old shop, the original laminated bread cases, the original tile floor. She shows me the new, hand-built brick oven, which turns 600 pounds of dough into delectables on slow days, 850 pounds on busy ones. She informs me that there are two other bakeries under the Wild Flour name; one in New Berlin, and one baking pastries and croissants at Grand Avenue Mall. She takes me on a tour of her sparkling kitchen, bustling with hard-working Latinos from the neighborhood, and speaks with strength, conviction, and enthusiasm, her brown eyes bright.

“Ten years ago I bought a loaf of bread,” she says. “And when I bit into it, I said to my husband, ‘I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ He said, ‘what is that?’ I said, ‘be a baker.’ He just said, ‘I’ll support you.’ He’s a honey.” She smiles with megawatt authenticity and leads me back to the front of the store, where employee Rosa is sweeping with vigor and cheer.

“I was the 13th of my parents’ 14 kids,” she continues. “And I was raised on a farm in central Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother. I became an expert dishwasher, I’m great at that. And I learned from my mother the art of sharing. I learned that bread is not so much to feed your belly, but your soul. I learned that when you bake for others, you are sharing not so much food but yourself. And we heal one another through food. So, now I’m doing that, and I love what I do.”

Greg is, as Dolly reports, a honey, with an easy smile, gentle voice and approachable spirit. He was one of eight children, but his father died when Greg was 11, and he watched his mother raise the children by herself. He informs me that he decided to marry Dolly when he was 14 and she 13, during the 1950s in rural Wisconsin. The wedding had to wait several years, but they’ve now been married for over three decades.

These are people who know the value of hard work and community, pulling together with other “good, honest people” to make something wonderful. Together they exude a joy so youthful it’s almost childlike, and make me think, paradoxically, “this is maturity.”

The first Wild Flour Bakery was the one in New Berlin, but, as Dolly describes it, “you can get a lot of help as a tasteful bakery out there. Everyone wants to contribute. But we wanted to help this community. We wanted to be part of regenerating this neighborhood. Our workers live here, and we wanted to be close to their homes. This made sense.”

Dolly speaks with love of her mother Helen. “I learned so much from her, and she’s such a part of me, that I wanted to name the bakery in honor of her. We had already named it something else, and written up the legal papers, and the checks, with that name. But, when I was little I always used to pick wild flowers for her from the woods. So I re-named the bakery Wild Flour in her memory, and I feel her presence with me every day, in every thing I do.”

She speaks of Milwaukee: “We all have to work together and make it a welcoming place again, or it will be a Detroit.”

I tell her I’m impressed by her client list, and she speaks with a mixture of boldness and humility. “We don’t have our noses out of joint, because you’re only as good as that last loaf of bread.” She chuckles.

On my drive home, I consume a large portion of their gift to me, cranberry walnut crunchies. It’s the bread of energetic optimism, and it’s nourishing in more ways than one.

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