November 23, 2012

Spaans Cookie Company in Galt cuts no corners, and customers adjust

You can have your pumpkin cheesecake, your Asiago cheese rolls, your slice of blackberry pie.

You can have your pumpkin cheesecake, your Asiago cheese rolls, your slice of blackberry pie.

But only if you follow the Spaans rules.

No pie can be sliced and served in the tiny Spaans dining area until it is completely cooled. Nothing leaves the Spaans premises unbaked or partially baked. No pie goes out the door of this iconic Galt bakery on the day before a major holiday, unless its buyer has made proper arrangements ahead of time.

"You do it their way, or you don't get your pie," said Kay Williams of Acampo, who with husband Ron scored pumpkin and blackberry versions this week for their holiday table. "You've got to know how the game is played here."

Since 1958, Spaans Cookie Company has been a centerpiece of the tiny community of Galt, the masterwork of a family whose bakery roots stretch back more than a century. And never is the shop more popular than in the weeks surrounding the winter holidays, when procuring a freshly prepared Spaans pie or tray of dinner rolls is as essential to many people as a trip to the shopping mall or Christmas tree lot.

"These rolls, they're heaven," said Kim Laskosky, who was among the first in a long but patient line of customers who picked up their orders Wednesday. Laskosky's husband, Mike, grew up in Galt, and Spaans treats are always a must for the holidays.

"They're way better than anything you can get on a grocery shelf," affirmed Laskosky's son Ryan.

All of that goodness, said owner Jim Spaans, is a product of hard work, discipline and order. Oh, and recipes that have bucked trends and withstood the test of time.

"Every day, we make those rolls from scratch, and we make them the way they have always been made" – slathered with rivers of hot butter – said Spaans, who runs the business with his wife, Sharon.

Their children, Darren and Melissa, represent the fourth generation of Spaans to work in the bakery, where the walls are decorated with historic Spaans family photographs.

The butter bath flies in the face of the national push for healthier diets. Nevertheless, the rolls were flying out the door this week, as were the full-fat pies in flavors from pecan to peanut butter.

In a nod to the times, Spaans cranks out a few varieties of sugar-free pies and cookies. They, too, are hot sellers, said Spaans.

The Hostess Twinkie's days may be numbered, but Spaans and its legendary spiced windmill cookies appear to be here to stay.

Running a bakery is joyful work, said Spaans, who started at the business full time in 1969, after earning a college degree in forestry sciences. "But it's very, very hard, too.

"In a family business, you work weekends, you work evenings. One minute you're talking to a banker about a loan, and the next you're cleaning leaves off of the sidewalk.

"You have to 'live the business,' as my father said. And this time of year, it wears us to a frazzle."

The Spaans story dates back to 1896, when Jim's grandfather Peter became an apprentice baker in Holland. He came to America in 1912 and, after a stint as a wheat farmer, ran a bakery in a small town in Michigan, selling bread for 7 cents a loaf.

Peter's son William, Jim's father, opened a bakery in Modesto in 1948, and 10 years later moved it to Galt, where it anchors the town's historic business core on C Street.

Today the bakery has 20 full-time employees, some of whom have worked at the business for three decades. Spaans sells cookies internationally and ships special orders worldwide.

Pies are another matter. They are sold only at the bakery, and demand this week was nothing short of rabid.

"Pre-order, pre-order, pre-order!" a Spaans clerk intoned over the telephone Wednesday as better-prepared customers began queueing up for pies they had claimed as early as Nov. 1. "You have to order in advance. No holds. No walk-ins. Sorry, sweetie!"

On Wednesday alone, more than 1,000 pies went out the bakery's glass doors, including 300 pumpkin and 250 apple varieties.

Typically, Spaans sells a total of 20 pies each day.

"We had people standing outside with cellphones trying to place orders before we even opened today," Jim Spaans said Wednesday morning. "People are still calling. It's hard to say no to anyone, but we have to do it today."

Still, everything seemed in perfect order as he moved through the bakery, greeting old friends, keeping the growing line moving and making sure pies and rolls flowed with machinelike precision from workers in the warehouse into the hands of customers.

"Let's go!"

"How are you, Dave?"

"Got what you need, Bob?"

"We had crews here all night last night," said Spaans, his blue eyes weary. He had been lucky enough to grab a few hours of sleep before arriving at the bakery at around 5 o'clock that morning. "But I'm still tired," he confessed.

At 70 years old, Spaans has been planning to retire "for at least five years," he said. "I wanted to play some golf. Yet here I am."

With the Thanksgiving rush over, Spaans Cookie Company will close for the weekend. Jim and Sharon Spaans planned to visit cousins in Yuba City for the holiday, bringing offerings of fresh pies and rolls. Jim Spaans will kick back for a few days, he said, and once again contemplate retirement.

But he will no doubt be back on Monday, preparing the troops for Christmas.

"We'll start all over again," he said with a smile. "It never ends."

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