Bonnie Alton sells St. Paul Great Harvest Bread to Hmong baker

0 7

Bonnie Alton never considered sharing space in her Great Harvest Bread Co. kitchen until she got a call one day in 2019.

The woman said she was helping her favorite baker, Mai Ker Hang, find a place to create her signature fruit-filled cakes. Would Alton consider renting out her Selby Avenue bakery in the evenings to Fruitee ‘n the Cake, Hang’s pop-up bakery business?

“They had looked and looked, and everyone was saying ‘No’ to them,” Alton said. “I thought about it for a little bit, and I talked to Brian, my husband, about it, and I said, ‘You know, we can do this. The kitchen just sits empty at the end of the day.’”

When Hang went to tour the bakery, she found Alton working in the back. “I told myself, ‘If only this woman is my mentor, I will go a lot farther and grow a lot faster,’” Hang said. “I think God sent her to me. I am so fortunate to have met her.”

Fortunate, indeed.

On Friday, Hang purchased the business from Alton. She is believed to be the first Hmong owner of a Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise in the U.S.

Alton, 67, said Hang, 29, is the perfect person to continue her legacy of philanthropy and community building — oh, and bread-baking, too.

“My work at Great Harvest has been a catalyst for building community,” Alton said. “There is so much shared hospitality that can happen with bread. We come to the production table each day with generous spirits that are enriched by the work we do together and the community we get to serve.”

Hang began helping Alton during the 2020 holiday season and said she “got hooked on the idea that I could combine these two businesses and own the bakery I have always wanted for my work.” She asked Alton to let her know if she ever decided to retire and sell the business; the two began seriously talking about a sale in March.

“I really love everything about the Great Harvest environment — how loose it is, how fun it is,” Hang said. “Everybody is friendly. So I talked to Bonnie, and I said, ‘Bonnie, if someday you retire, can I carry on your legacy?’ I told her, ‘I assure you I will not fail you.’”

From refugee camp to budding baker

Mai Ker Hang puts a tray of Red White and Blueberry bread into the oven as owner Bonnie Alton looks on at the Great Harvest Bread Co. on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Hang and her husband, Tou Lee, spent three weeks in August at the company’s franchise headquarters in Dillon, Mont., learning all things Great Harvest — from fundamental baking to made-to-order baking to running a retail store. The couple, who live in Maplewood, have three young daughters: Liora, 5; Odilia, 3; and Sarai, 1.

Hang’s father was a soldier in the “secret war” backed by the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War. After the war, the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Hang was born and spent her first 11 years.

“We were a very poor family, with very little money,” she said. “I remember one year crying on my birthday because I knew I would not have a cake. I watched as my father searched in his pocket for money and found only enough to buy me new sandals and a little bun I could eat on my way to school. That day, he chose to eat nothing so I could have a birthday to remember.”

In 2004, Hang and her family arrived in Minnesota. Hang had to quickly learn English, which “was not an easy language for me to learn,” she said. “In school, I struggled to adjust and fit in.”

She got to try birthday cake for the first time when she turned 12 in December 2004. “It was the most beautiful cake,” she said. “It was from Cub Foods. It said, ‘Happy Birthday Mai Ker.’ It had purple frosting. It was a whipped cream marble cake — chocolate and vanilla.”

It was the most delicious thing she had eaten during her 12 years on Earth. So began her love affair with cake.

By the time she was a freshman at Harding High School in St. Paul, Hang had begun teaching herself how to bake cakes for family and friends.

“My sister and I, we really love cake,” she said. “We came to the idea that we wanted a cake that was not too sweet — that we can eat and enjoy and that we don’t feel nasty after. She said, ‘Can you learn how to bake a cake from scratch?’ And that’s when I started to mix and match and do all this research.”

Hang’s cakes are filled with fresh fruit — including strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, kiwi, mango and coconut. “The fruit balances out the sweetness and reduces the sweetness from the cake,” she said.

A cake elaborately decorated with fresh fruit.
One of Mai Ker Hang’s signature mixed-fruit cakes. (Courtesy of Fruitee ‘n the Cake)

When her sister brought one of Hang’s cakes to work one day, a co-worker at St. Jude Medical asked if Hang was taking orders. “That’s how I got my first customer,” she said. “I was a senior in high school.”

Hang’s brother, Ying, created a Facebook page and named the business Fruitee ’n the Cake. “He just wanted a fancy name for the cake, and he wanted to include something with ‘fruit’ in there,” she said. “It was supposed to be Fruitien, but that was hard for people to pronounce.”

Hang’s burgeoning business started taking off. She would go to school all day and then bake until midnight. She continued that schedule, she said, while attending St. Paul College and Metropolitan State University, graduating in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

“One day, I had a customer come in, and she said, ‘Oh, your cake is so good. I eat cakes from many places, and I really like yours. Have you ever thought about having your own bakery or having a commercial kitchen?’” Hang said. “At the time, I was looking for a commercial kitchen, and she started to contact places for me. She started making calls, and that’s how I met Bonnie.”

Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.