"Bread is Nick Cage in Moonstruck sexy," says Danny Klecko after a tour of his massive, scratch-and-dent, indomitable old bakery, St. Agnes on St. Paul's east side. Come to think of it, that character is a fitting metaphor for Klecko (everybody calls him Klecko, including himself, and he refers to himself in the third person, as in "Klecko has taken more selfies than Paris Hilton") — all deep pool eyes, unflappable passion, and infectious dreamer. With an Eastern European edge.
But if the bakery itself were a celebrity, it might be more like Bill Gates: crushing everyone else in the game, steadily stacking chips, and bearing a stealthy heart of gold.
Klecko doesn't get caught up in that sexiness factor, however. At St. Agnes, it's money first, heart-of-gold politics second, and then, probably, sex appeal third.
He was a young, poor, Polish kid who moved to the Twin Cities from Inglewood, California, with his family. He says he'd go down to the local saloon, Blackies, and they'd give him loaves of black bread. "They knew who was poor, and they'd give us extra treats — as a kid I loved black bread like other kids love Dairy Queen."
In other words, Klecko fell in love with bread and came to baking honestly: because he was hungry.
He's been heading up the bakery at St. Agnes for almost three decades, and though you may not have heard of the bakery (they have no sexy little storefront, and retail business is a small portion of their financial pie), you've probably eaten their bread. If you've had a burger at Target Field, if you've gambled at Mystic Lake Casino, if you've eaten a dog at Heartland, if you've been to a hockey game and eaten at the Xcel, if you've been to little and wonderful new Pilgrimage, you've eaten their bread.
They've got hundreds of accounts, they send out truckloads of bread daily, and their biggest competitors are the Syscos and the US Foods of the world. Except at St. Agnes, everything is still handmade, from scratch, every day.
"There are days when you just want to keep your life." He's talking about their summer months, the bakery's busiest season, when the many walk-in ovens are in constant churn, and no air conditioning provides relief. It gets to be in the 120-degree and plus range.
"There are no bakers anymore." That's how Klecko characterizes the business changes in almost three decades. "There aren't any bakers anymore. Everyone wants to be the artist."
Everyone wants the sex appeal.
"I stood on the end of an assembly line and kept my mouth shut for the first 20 years of my career."
But the bakery's bread and butter is hamburger buns.
"If you have the best bun, you own the nation." And Klecko is adamant that they have the best bun. "Buns are all about texture, and mouthfeel, not taste, but people don't even know it. You also have to know your demographic. If you get into the above-60 demographic, you have to switch from oils to shortening, because the jaw doesn't work the same way."
How's that for sexy? But he knows his demographic, and that means this: they make money.
But it's not all just pragmatics. He also calls himself "the lord of the sourdough," and he'd put his St. Paul Sourdough up against any, anywhere, including San Francisco. "People get very snobbish about it," he says, showing me his starter, packed deep into a very un-snobbish rolling bin the size and shape of a trash bin. "People feed theirs with wine and vegetables and yogurt, but we feed ours with potato."
And out of the potato starter, he can make 20 different sourdoughs, because the flavor is neutral. He loves sourdough because it's versatile, the human digestive system loves it, it's ancient and resilient. It was invented by the Egyptians.
"There are chefs out there who claim to be the best at bread, and that's just silly. Everyone does something really well, and it's us that nobody can come close to when it comes to bread."
At this point, 30 years in, he's plenty ready and able to open that precious little artisanal storefront, and to become the artiste that all the young kids aspire to be, but he deflects that notion.
"I'm responsible for getting paychecks into the hands of 50 families. That's more important than one person's hopes and desires."
Instead, he'd prefer to become the mayor of St. Paul in 2017. How? On a platform of taking care of the city's poor and needy. Why? The Dorothy Day Center is one of his accounts.
"I went over there and I saw people sleeping on top of each other. I'm standing there and I started crying. I had tears coming out of my eyes."
He says he makes the trek from the East Side and through downtown St. Paul and to the Dorothy Day on a regular basis, and he's noticed something. "The city's indigent population has exploded. St. Paul needs someone to take care of these people."
This is a man who has an actual tattoo of Ronald Reagan on his body.
And what if he doesn't win the race?
"I'd love to go back to working third shift. The best days of my life are spent baking. My job is to feed an entire metro area."
And yes, they also bake ancient grain loaves and purple flour and all that sexy stuff too.
Bread is the name of this game. Lord of the sourdoughs!
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