CINCINNATI -- In 1893, a young German, William Conrad Hartmann, crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking a better life in America.
He made his way to Cincinnati, got a job at a restaurant and saved enough money to return to Germany to get his sister. They left Germany in 1897 and settled in the Queen City.
“I still have the papers from Kaiser Wilhelm II (the German emperor),” said Bill Hartmann, William Conrad Hartmann’s grandson. “You had to get approval to leave the country in those days.”
Although Bill Hartmann’s grandfather came from a family of wagon makers, that didn’t stop him from opening a bakery in Over-the-Rhine, giving birth to a family business that has prevailed for more than 100 years.
“He opened Hartmann’s Bakery at Liberty Street and Western Street,” Bill Hartmann said. “Our family has been in this business since 1901.”
Bill Hartmann’s father opened his own bakery after serving in the Navy in World War II. With the permission of his commanding officers, he secured a mixer from one of the battleships that is still in use at the bakery today. In 1949, he relocated just a couple of miles to the bakery’s current location on St. Lawrence Avenue in Price Hill.
Growing up in the bakery
Quite literally, Bill grew up in the bakery. While his father baked, his mother worked in the store.
"I used to be in the back playing with my toys,” he said. “I wasn’t even in school yet.”
Over time, his father taught him the trade, and when Bill turned 12, he took on a new role: cleaner. For what averaged to be six- or seven-hour workdays, he got paid $15.
“I’d get up with my mom at 5 in the morning because they open at 6. I’d do all the cleanup work,” he said. “I’d wash all the pans, clean the equipment and mop the floor.”
Bill continued to work at the bakery through high school and college. He went to the University of Cincinnati and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1971 with plans to be a teacher.
However, after a six-month stint teaching at Withrow High School, he realized how much he missed working at the bakery.
“Every day is different,” Bill said. “Plus you can be creative. If you get bored with something, you just start making different things that are more challenging.”
'We make everything by hand'
Bill went back to working at the bakery and together with his younger brother, Paul, took over the business from their father in 1978.
Today, Bill, Paul and Nick (Paul’s son) do all the baking at this bakery, making goodies including bread, pie, cookies, doughnuts, Danish rolls, coffee cakes, cream horns, jelly rolls, strudel and even wedding cakes.
“We don’t sell everything, but we sell a lot of different things,” Bill said. “We make everything by hand.”
One of their most popular items is the chocolate bird’s nest, made of small hand-formed cookies rolled in pecans and adorned with chocolate Swiss icing.
“We can’t make enough of them for Christmas,” Bill said.
As much as Bill loves the trade, he said the hours are grueling – something he advises aspiring bakers to consider.
“My brother gets in at 12:30 a.m. and I get here around 1:30 a.m.,” he said.
The two brothers usually get the bread dough going first because “it has to sit and we have to punch the dough down every 30 minutes.” Next come the Danish rolls, cakes and a checklist of other items. (“Then we fry the doughnuts,” Bill said.) His day is usually done around 9 a.m., but it can easily stretch to 16 hours, depending on the orders he has to fill.
As long as he has been in the business, he has seen trends come and go, such as the emergence of specialty bakeries, making things like gourmet cupcakes, pies and bread.
“It seems like a lot of people specialize in one thing, and that’s probably what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “The kind of business we run, there are just so many different things you have to understand.”
However, the bakery business is a labor of love, he said.
“You have to really like what you’re doing. We treat our customers really well,” he said. “People like feeling like they’re with friends and neighbors. It’s kind of like a family.”
St. Lawrence Bakery
3715 St. Lawrence Ave., Price Hill
6 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.