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Baked goods manage to outlive coronavirus

Northbrook’s Leonard’s Bakery shut down last spring, a victim of COVID-19. But Leonard’s baked goods live on.

Several Leonard’s Bakery chocolate coffeecakes
After Leonard’s Bakery shut down last year, its classics, such as chocolate coffeecake, started to be baked by Once Upon a Bagel. Soon it hopes to offer Leonard’s baked goods nationwide.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Marc Becker is a baker, the son of a baker, and the grandson of a baker. Baking is his life. When he moved his Leonard’s Bakery — named for his father — from Chicago to Northbrook in 1987 he was 28 years old. Last spring, when COVID-19 struck, he was 61.

A lifetime worth of almond horns, poppyseed cookies, onion bagels and cinnamon rugelach, of customers and suppliers and days that start at 3:30 a.m. Then it just stopped. Leonard’s was a small space; behind the counters was hard for two clerks to pass each other. In the spring of 2020, the pandemic was new and surging. He shut the bakery down for five weeks.

His friends and family urged him to reopen. So he gave it a try. That lasted another two weeks.

“Then I said, ‘This is it. I’m done,” Becker recalled Wednesday. “I don’t want to be under these conditions.”

Why?

“I felt like I’m going to hell every day,” he said. “I used to go to work and have the best time of my life. I loved it. Now I hated, hated, hated it.”

That was clear. I happened to go to Leonard’s just before it closed for good. Usually, I’d chat with Marc. But with social distancing, a line out the door, there wasn’t time. Becker seemed frazzled, anxious. He was worried about his employees.

“For all these people to get sick?” he said. “The customers.”

Leonard’s permanently closed last May. A shock. Then it never should have been there in the first place, an authentic outpost of Chicago Yiddishkeit in a strip mall next to a suburban Dairy Queen. I wasn’t a regular customer; in fact, I had a personal rule: Never go to Leonard’s alone. “Because if I did, I’d go every day,” I explained. So I’d take the boys after a game, or guests — out-of-towners insisted on visiting Leonard’s on their way home to stock up. It was that good.

Former Leonard’s Bakery owner Marc Becker, left, is now a consultant to Shana and Steve Geffen, who own Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park and other “Once Upon a...” restaurants.
Former Leonard’s Bakery owner Marc Becker, left, is now a consultant to Shana and Steve Geffen, who own Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park and other “Once Upon a...” restaurants.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Miracles are by nature ephemeral. Here then gone. But after Leonard’s closed, another miraculous thing occurred. Baked goods from Leonard’s started showing up at Sunset Foods. Almond coffeecake. Mandel bread. Zayde cookies, which are dry and not too sweet and, at least to me, highly addictive.

The Leonard’s name. The happy running baker logo. The fine print said they were now baked by the people who run the Once Upon a Bagel chain of restaurants. Obviously, some kind of collaboration.

I let months go by, wondering. Finally, I had to know.

“It made sense to us to take it if he wanted us to have it,” said Steve Geffen, who owns Once Upon a Bagel.

Once Upon a Bagel places already carried Leonard’s sweets. It made sense to start to bake them.

The baking is done out of Once Upon a Bagel on First Street in Highland Park. A line out the door Wednesday for carryout.

“You’ve got your coffeecakes, macaroons, mandel bread, smiley cookies,” said Geffen, leading me back into the kitchen. “This is actually a slow day, if you were here last week we have to push the wall as far as it could go because we didn’t have room.”

The 100-seat dining room has been partitioned by a temporary wall into a staging area, with bags of flour, tables set out with chocolate coffeecakes waiting to be wrapped, and rolling racks filled top to bottom with trays of freshly baked macaroons and cookies.

“We’re using it as a makeshift bakery,” said Geffen. “Now we’re going to end up leaving it like this and cutting down the dine-in. The dine-in isn’t really going to come back to 100% for at least another year.”

Marc Becker comes in four days a week as a consultant. Doing what? I was interested in how he supervises the process.

“I come in part time, showing them everything,” he said. “They take my knowledge, the recipes, in everything we make, and I explain everything to them. Why we’re doing this, why we’re doing that. The reasoning behind each and everything we do.”

Most people reading this, I pointed out, will never have tasted a Leonard’s baked good. What is it about them? Can you explain it?

“I believe in my coffeecake,” he said, earnestly. “If you weigh it, it’s between 1 3/4 and 2 34 pounds. If you go to the store, you don’t see that. I use good chocolate. Everything I believe in, the real deal, because you’re going to get it back. What you put in is what you get back, like anything else in life.”

It can’t be the coffeecake’s weight. Though it is marvelously dense. Then Becker added something that brought clarity, an aspect you might not grasp merely by biting into a complicated, moist, double-boiled Israeli macaroon.

“You used to come in with your son after his tennis lessons,” he said.

That’s right. That was also almost a decade ago. I was astounded he remembered.

“He remembers everything,” explained his daughter, Samantha Newmark. “That is him; he’s like a sponge. He soaks up everything, remembers everything. He wanted everyone to feel like a million dollars when he walks in. It’s his personality. What he built was a small community bakery. That’s still shining through the product.

“What makes Leonard’s Leonard’s is a personal touch,” she continued. “That sense of comfort. That’s what made Leonard’s so unique. Not only the quality. He definitely wants the product to be perfection. But those relationships, every person he comes in contact with feels so special. That personal aspect.”

Can you taste the personal aspect, even if you never hovered, stunned by the sheer variety, in front of the cases of goodies at Leonard’s? You’ll have to tell me. Leonard’s Bakery sweets are sold at the Bagel on Broadway, at New York Bagel, at Big Apple Finer Foods on Clark Street, and at D’Amato’s Bakery on Grand Avenue. Maybe that’s the best way to understand what we’re talking about here: baked goods so delicious that other bakeries sell them, unashamed.