Raised in the bakery business
"You don't change horses when you've learned how to ride."
That's LeRoy's theory behind his lifetime in the small town bakery business.
LeRoy Smith grew up in the world of fresh baked breads and goodies, with his parents owning the Parkers Prairie bakery. From that early beginning, he has spent the last 45 years of his life working nights, pouring himself into dough and donuts alike.
"I was here at 1 o'clock this morning," LeRoy says of the New York Mills Bake Shoppe he owns with his wife Josie. "Those are the ideal hours for me. It's quiet and peaceful."
Putting in 10, 12, and 14 hour days on a regular basis, LeRoy still finds his work to be a labor of love. The bakery is open Monday through Saturday, and LeRoy even comes in on Sundays to clean up.
Now approaching his 61st birthday, LeRoy purchased the New York Mills Bake Shoppe at the young age of 23. "The last 38 years have gone so fast," he says with an air of disbelief. "I consider myself very fortunate because I've always been able to do what I want to do."
Aside from working as a baker, the only other jobs LeRoy has held were working on farms in high school, and at a bank in the Twin Cities while he attended baking school for a year. In addition to working at his parents' bakery while growing up, LeRoy also put in some time working at bakeries in Wadena and Cloquet, before purchasing the New York Mills shop.
When the opportunity arose for LeRoy to buy the NY Mills shop in December of 1971, he hardly gave it a second thought. Baking was already deeply embedded in his blood. Prior to LeRoy taking over the shop, it was known as "Ideal Bakery" and owned by Robert Rybak.
"There's been a bakery in town for a long time," LeRoy recalls, mentioning that it has moved around quite a bit, and has had several different names. LeRoy says he figures he's one of the longest running business owners in town right now.
Throughout his tenure at the shop, LeRoy has seen the baking equipment change and the building undergo several remodeling projects. "I've been here long enough to wear out three roofs," LeRoy says with a grin.
A small town staple, the bakery serves a purpose far greater than just providing people with fresh baked goods. For one thing, it's about the only place a person can go in the middle of the night.
"It's very seldom a morning goes by when someone isn't here by 3 o'clock in the morning," LeRoy explains. "Usually, it's 1 or 2."
For a handful of men who have trouble sleeping at night, the bakery, along with LeRoy's company, provides the perfect solution to a restless night. One after another, a steady stream of guys pours in throughout the early morning hours, keeping LeRoy company while he's getting the baking started for the day.
LeRoy says it's not uncommon for someone to go home for an hour, only to return again at 7 a.m. for the daily "coffee shaking" ritual. A handful of regulars turn out each morning to shake dice and sip coffee, with the loser responsible for paying for everyone's coffee that day. LeRoy never misses a chance to join the men for their morning gathering.
Then there's the Saturday ladies coffee group, comprised of a bunch of ladies in their 80's and 90's. "They've been coming here for at least 25 years. It's their little gossip session," reveals LeRoy.
For LeRoy, the best part of the business is meeting new people and keeping in contact with all the regulars. After growing up all over Minnesota, he says he's glad to have finally settled in New York Mills, a town he sees as the perfect size, with lots of friendly people.
With nearly four decades as a successful business owner behind him, LeRoy doesn't plan to make any big changes in the future. "We expanded into lunches, but we never want to stray away from being a ma and pop store," LeRoy explains. "I don't want 30 employees. I've never wanted to do that."
Their current arrangement of a bakery, coffee shop, and deli is all LeRoy wants to see in the business. He takes pride in producing each of their homemade bakery items, with his wife Josie handling most of the deli responsibilities and cake decorating. Their sandwiches are all made in the shop, just as the bakery items are.
One of the best selling items at the Bake Shoppe is the "chocolate snail." This pastry is basically a cinnamon twist dipped in chocolate. LeRoy says it's a favorite among all the kids. It seems every person in town has his or her own favorite treat at the shop.
With pride evident in everything he bakes, and a friendly comment for each customer who walks through the door, LeRoy says he'll continue to run the Bake Shoppe for many years to come. With his work his passion, he doesn't see a need to retire anytime soon.
He puts it simply, "There's no place I'd rather be."