That solid standby -- Joe's Bakery -- shines among local pastry-lovers.
It's late at night in Lawrence and you are seized by a familiar craving. Without pausing to think, you jump in the car and race for your destination. The shame of being driven by this compulsion is accompanied by a gnawing uncertainty. You can't remember for sure -- will it be open? Nearing Ninth and Louisiana brings the comforting glow of neon. The illuminated pink "open" sign is a welcome sight. Joe's Bakery is open for business.
For many Lawrence residents, the uncertainty is caused by a characteristic that is uniquely Joe's. It is the only Lawrence Bakery closed during summer and school holidays.
Going past the neon and into the bakery is entering a world of overpowering aromas. The front counter offers, among other things, doughnuts, bear claws, huge frosted sugar cookies and chocolate brownies. For all the magical aromas and pastries produced there, the back room of the bakery is surprisingly small. Ralph Smith, "Joe's" son and bakery owner for 18 years, is at work cutting doughnuts from a long, doughy slab on his work table. He is happy to talk about the business he owns with his wife, Melody, as long as he can keep working.
"I don't think it started out that way," he says about the bakery's operational seasons. "It started out as a wholesale bakery up the street from here."
The early days
In the early 1950s it was Kay's Bakery, and Joe Smith was an employee. Smith bought the bakery from his boss, and Joe's Bakery opened in 1952.
"I can remember riding up to the dorms and fraternities in an old pick-up truck to deliver bread and doughnuts," says Ralph Smith.
The bakery was strictly wholesale at the time. About 1964, the bakery moved to its present location, and at the same time, became a retail store.
The retail business had the greatest volume during the school year, and eventually the hours adapted to the students. Does this mean the largest share of customers are college students?
"Everybody asks me that," Smith says. "To me, anybody who's under 25 is a student.
"Probably at night the customers are mainly students, and during the day, it's more local."
The doughnuts are now neatly arranged on a steel grid tray and lowered into the hot oil of the deep fryer. At times, local residents have questioned Smith about staying open year-round, which prompted him to keep the bakery open a couple of summers ago.
"I keep seeing Lawrence grow, and I wanted to see what my summer business was like," he says. "It wasn't anything to get too excited about; you lose a lot of volume."
He also added that he would miss the time off. When the bakery is open, the hours are 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 4 p.m. to midnight on Sunday. Melody Smith works noon to 6 p.m. with her husband taking over from 5 p.m. to closing. Their welcome vacations are spent with their three school-age children.
Lawrence resident Bob Zook goes to Joe's for his family's favorite -- the sugar cookies.
"We definitely miss Joe's during the summer," he says. "We're real sad."
"I guess you could say we kind of go through withdrawal."
Another Joe's patron, Topeka resident Jo Allen, says, "Sometimes I don't feel safe being anywhere near Lawrence when I know Joe's is open.
"If I'm trying to diet, being near Joe's will mean disaster, so sometimes it's a relief to know it's closed."
20 good years left
In the back room, Ralph Smith lifts the doughnuts out of the deep fryer, spears them on a stick, and plops them on a tray where they await icing. He isn't sure if he will ever keep the business open in summer again, but has no plans to close the bakery for good.
"Overall it's been good to me," he says. "It was real good to my parents."
Joe's Bakery customers can take comfort in knowing that, at least during the school year, Joe's will be around for some time.
"I imagine it will be here," he says. "I'm 40, and I've got 20 more good years in me."
The neon will continue to glow, the pastries will continue to beckon, and Joe's Bakery will be open for business.