Janet Schad Zemlicka closed the oven door for the last time at her bakery, Zem’s Fresh Starts in Milbank, on Saturday, October 28. Janet represents the fourth generation of six generations of bakers in the Schad family that together have delighted Milbank sweet-tooths for over 100 years.
Janet started with her own recipes of mud and water pies in the sandbox, but her dad, Wayne, was apparently concerned about the stomachs of the kids in the neighborhood. He soon took Janet under his wing and taught her to bake using flour, butter, and sugar. By age 12, she began icing cakes in the bakery downtown. Working alongside her father, she perfected her baking skills and learned that.no day is so dreary it can’t be fixed with a cupcake.
Although she was raised with her five sisters –Rebecca, Karen, Janet, JoEllen, Gretchen and Jenifer – and they all took their turn working in the family business, Janet was the only daughter to pursue a baking career. After a year of college, she followed the aroma of freshly-baked bread back to Schad’s Bakery in Milbank. “I enjoyed it,” she says. “My sisters went off to college, did other things, or got married. Moved on. I came back to work in the bakery for a while until I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life. She discovered muffin compares. “I ended up liking it so much that I stayed. I still love it.”
She also became part of history in the baking. Janet’s 91-year-old mother, Pat:Schad, said, “Phillip Schad (Janet’s great grandfather b.1867) started Schad’s bakery in the building on Main Street where VPD Studios is now located. Janet says the bakeshop followed just a few years behind Emanuel’s (Funeral Home and Furniture) which was one of the first businesses in Milbank.
On Saturday, April 22, 1922, Phillip and his son George (b.1896) moved the Schad Purity Bakery to 216 Main Street. They also added a soda fountain. To celebrate the opening of their new location, the bakery hosted a guessing game and gave away a three-layer pyramid cake. A news story from The Herald Advance dated April 26, 1922, recounts the details:
George then married Ruth Finney in 1925, and Wayne was born to them in 1928. Janet says her dad was thrust into the bakery business when “Grandpa’s car was hit by another car in Milbank in the spring of 1953. He did not survive very long. Dad was in the service (stationed in England during the Korean War) and tried to get home, but he didn’t make it in time.” Wayne received a special dispensation from the military and was soon discharged. He began to work with his mother and they became partners in the business.
“They needed help, so Mom started her new job there, too ”Janet explains. It wasn’t long until Pat became a permanent fixture in the bakery. Everyone who grew up in Milbank in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, can probably still envision her crisp apron and her equally crisp efficiency behind the counter.
Wayne and Pat made quite the team – he could bake like an angel and she could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. They kept the bakery bustling with customers having lunch, businesspeople grabbing coffee and a doughnut, and toddlers pressing their faces against the glass cases, mesmerized by the fancy cakes. It was still a time when you might even receive a baker’s dozen.
Janet says, like her mom, she loved waiting on the customers. “In fact, I enjoyed working in every area of the bakery.” Her favorite memories of the downtown store are the days she would go upstairs to Grandma Ruth’s office. From there, she glimpsed a bird’s eye view of the main floor of the bakery. Grandma Ruth died in 1965, but Wayne and Pat had already taken over ownership of the business.
How many loaves of bread did they make each day? Janet says, “I have no idea. I know my dad had two bakers – Terry Moser and Orville Webb. They got up in the wee hours of the morning about 3:30 or 4 a.m. Dad would roll in at 5:30 or 6 a.m. after they had the dough ready. In the early days, Grandpa and Dad had bread routes like Old Home does. So they made massive amounts.”
Life was sweet, but in 1996, Janet took a whisk and opened her own bakery called Zem’s. She says the bakery sign and all the items from her dad’s bakery still exist. “But I didn’t have one thing from the old bakery. I started on my own.” Of course, she took skill and talent with her, and what she says all bakers have in common – a strong work ethic. “Being a baker is very hard work. Very early mornings. You must have a love of what you do or you just wouldn’t do it.”
She also took recipes. Recipes honed over generations, and she made “small tweaks here and there.” She plans to keep her recipe book. “It’s just a mess,” she says. “The recipes from Dad are all there, but it is broken apart. My grandson wants it. I told him, ‘After I’m done with it, you can have it.’”
Until recently, recipes were at the heart of every bakery, but many people believe technology has devoured their soul. Janet doesn’t sugarcoat her opinion on the subject, “Not many bakeries make anything from scratch anymore. It’s just too much work! It’s all brought in ready to go.They just fry it or bake it. No more mixing. The new technology in the baking industry is someone somewhere else makes it.”
“Like a dinosaur I always did it my way.” she says. “The traditional way. Even my bookwork. Everyone told me to do it online. Nope! I did it by hand. By the time I could get the computer turned on, I could have it all entered into my ledgers. I did things the old- fashioned way, just like Dad taught me.” Her customers preferred tradition, too. “When I started working in the bakery, some of our most popular items were the long johns and peanut cakes. It’s the same now! It’s always been that way. She says, “When I tried something different like maple, bacon long Johns, they didn’t go here. When people want a treat, they go back to what they know they like.”
She recalls her dad retiring in 1998. Schad’s closed for vacation and didn’t reopen. It was sad because Dad didn’t get to go out in retirement.” Wayne had started to suffer from the effects of dementia. “My mom said they waited too long.” Pat also said, ‘I’m so glad you are retiring earlier, Janet.’” At 60, her dad wanted out, Janet, a 1975 graduate of MHS, notes. “At 60 I did, too. Then your kids leave home and you have more time. You enjoy your career again.”
Her sons, Shane, Shaun, and Shannon worked at Zem’s Fresh Starts and her grandson, Howie, worked there up until the last day. By the end, Howie, a junior at MHS, was frying and mixing icings, but, because he was in school, he could not be there to mix dough. “He was actually working as a baker, though, and he was good at it,” Janet remarks. “It was very satisfying working with my grandson. It reminded me of when I worked across from my dad every day.”
Janet always arrived at her bakery between 5 and 6 a.m. “I think I can definitely change that habit. I can see myself sleeping away a lot of my workday now,” she says. And no more having to go to bed at 9:30 p.m.!
When all is bread and done, what will she miss the most? “Working with people. I hope my coffee crew can find a new home. The community has been great to me. The best part of this last month was people wishing me well. People stopped by to say. ‘Thank you. ‘We’ll miss you. Enjoy your retirement…’” Jim Ward was one of Janet’s customers who came by early Saturday – the final day Zem’s was open. He picked up some goodies to surprise his family one last time. “I’m sentimental,” Jim said. “I remember my grandma buying me treats at Schad’s when I was little.”
Does Janet plan to take any of the bakery equipment with her? “I doubt I’ll keep much. Maybe the scale. Oh, maybe that one little mixer,” she says. “I mentioned to my husband, Galen, that I might bring home a mixer. He asked, ‘Why in the world would you want a big mixer like that?’ My Kitchen Aid at home just seems too small,” she explains. “I’m a foodie! I like my baked stuff.”.
So that leads to the question: If for the rest of your life, you had a bakery case in your house and the flour fairy replenishes it every night while you sleep, but you’re only allowed one item – the same item every day– what would it be? “Cake – my favorite thing to eat is cake. Birthday cake,” she promptly replies.
It’s not surprising that one of the last things she created at Zem’s was her granddaughter’s birthday cake. It featured a Hawaiian theme. Birthday cakes were always a big deal in her family. “Mom,” she said, “had to have frosted angel food – heavy on the frosting.” Everyone in the Schad house received a birthday cake from the bakery on their special day.
Well, not quite everyone. Janet’s birthday is August 14, and Schad’s was always closed during the month of August. So no one could bring a cake home for Janet. “We would usually be gone on vacation, anyway,” she said. But what self-respecting baker – especially a third generation bakery owner– would say that’s how the cookie crumbles, and let one of his daughters go without a birthday cake?
On their vacations, the Schads visited bakeries like other families visited museums. So on Janet’s birthday her dad would stop in a bakery to buy her a cake or – like one year in Colorado and one year in the Black Hills– he jumped behind the counter and made the cake himself. I guess his fellow bakers decided to “cake an exception” for him.
Regardless of how you slice it, Schad’s cakes have been invited to thousands of birthday parties in Milbank for over 100 years. Now, the time has come to blow out the candles and wish Janet a very happy retirement.
Photos submitted: George Schad with cake. Wayne Schad. Bottom photo-Howie, Pat and Janet. Display ad from Milbank Herald Advance April 19, 1922.