The woman behind Lawrence’s legendary Joe’s Bakery dies at 88

Students from University of Kansas scholarship halls wait for doughnuts outside Joe's Bakery, 616 W. Ninth St., in this file photo from 2003.

Her name wasn’t on the sign at Lawrence’s famous Joe’s Bakery, but in practice the place could have been called Joe and Ramona’s Bakery.

“It was a Ma and Pa business in the truest sense of the word,” said Ralph Smith, son of Joe and Ramona Smith. “We always thought of it as his business, but my mom started it with him and she was independent. I guarantee that was what my dad needed as a partner.”

Ramona Smith, who with her husband, Joe Smith, started Joe’s Bakery in 1952, died on Tuesday. She was 88.

Joe’s Bakery was located a few blocks from the University of Kansas campus at 616 W. Ninth St. The bakery with the big blue sign was especially beloved among students for its sandwiches, iced sugar cookies and hot doughnuts, available late at night.

When he was growing up, Ralph Smith said his mother “pretty much ran the day shift” while his father worked nights. Joe came in about 5 p.m. and Ramona would leave shortly after, their son said.

Joe and Ramona Smith at their wedding on Oct. 23, 1948. In 1952 the couple opened Joe's Bakery in Lawrence.

“They’d just kind of shake hands and talk a little bit … and look forward to Saturday nights — they always had Saturday night together,” Ralph said. “That was some pretty old-school stuff, back in the day when the husband worked one shift and the wife worked the other. And certainly Mom did her fair share.”

Joe himself did most of the baking, on the night shift, Ralph said.

When she arrived in the morning, Ramona did a lot of cleanup, payroll, probably some hiring, helping with customers, sandwich-making (at that time, Joe’s was serving “torpedo” sandwiches on house-made buns) and a little cake-decorating, Ralph said. She wasn’t real confident in her icing skills, he said, “but she could do a pretty darn good rose.”

“Mom was the boss around there,” Ralph said. “It’s Joe’s Bakery — it wasn’t Ramona’s. But Ramona was Joe’s silent partner.”

Ralph said his parents’ bakery started out as a wholesale operation but fairly early on switched to doughnuts and other treats sold directly to customers.

Not only had some other larger bakeries moved to town, according to a KU History article, but student demand contributed to the change.

Back then few students had cars so they walked everywhere they went, according to KU History. Students walking home from the movies downtown late at night — when Joe did his baking — smelled the bread and started knocking on the bakery door asking if they could buy some. The bakery started staying open late at night six days a week, later extending to 24 hours a day.

Ramona Smith

Joe and Ramona sold Joe’s Bakery to Ralph in 1981. Ralph said he sold the bakery in 2005, but it didn’t last long under the new owners, closing for good in 2007.

The Kansas Memorial Union later bought the original neon sign, about 50 recipes and rights to sell doughnuts under the Joe’s Bakery name, though the Union does not do so at this time.

Joe Smith died in 1992. According to her obituary Ramona lived in Lawrence until 2010, when she moved to Osage Beach, Mo., where Ralph now lives.

A graveside service is planned for 12:30 p.m. Monday at Memorial Park Cemetery, 1517 E. 15th St. in Lawrence. Visitation will be 10 a.m. to noon Monday at Warren-McElwain Mortuary, 120 West 13th St.