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This Kansas bakery keeps Croatian grandmothers' 'magic' alive for everyone

Men and women wearing red shirts play various string instruments. In front of them are two glass-covered pans containing small cubes of bread.
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Croatian band Hrvatski Obicaj played recently at the Strawberry Hill Baking Company's holiday open house. People came to the bakery in Merriam, Kansas, to listen to music, sample povitica, and watch the sweet Croatian bread being made.

The Strawberry Hill Bakery has outgrown its original location in Kansas City, Kansas, but the brothers who run it promise the povitica recipe is the same one their great, great grandmother brought from Croatia at the turn of the last century.

On a recent December morning, the Strawberry Hill Baking Company's holiday open house had the vibe of a lively folk festival with food, music and memories.

Hrvatski Obicha, a Kansas City-based Croatian band, played traditional music and Christmas carols on the Tambura, a family of native Croatian instruments. They’re crafted with beautiful inlays in sizes ranging from ukulele to acoustic guitar and sound like a harmonic combination of guitar, banjo and mandolin.

Visitors watched through glass windows as each loaf of povitica, the sweet bread brought from Croatia at the turn of the last century, was individually rolled, filled and baked. It was a moment of nostalgia for Joe Borders, 92, who’d brought a friend with him from their retirement home in Leawood.

“My mother-in-law made povitica every year,” he said, gazing into the hive of activity
behind the glass. “She’d bake 14 loaves herself in a day and give each one away.”

A cultural hub and thriving business

For decades, povitica recipes were closely guarded, available only to family and friends.
But in 1984, Harley O’Leary saw a business opportunity and opened the first Strawberry Hill Bakery at 5th and Barnett, in Kansas City, Kansas.

A man stands near a baker's rack, wearing a blue hair net. He's smiling at the camera and people behind him are working in a large bakery setting.
Laura Ziegler
Marc O'Leary, co-owner of the Strawberry Hill Baking Company, says the story of the Croatian sweet bread, povitica, also tells the story of the Croatian people who came to Kansas City, Kansas, in the early 1900s.

Since then, the company has outgrown three different locations. Today, Harley’s sons,
Marc, 54, and his brother Dennis, 51, operate what is now a 60,000 square foot bakery on Frontage road in Merriam, Kansas — it’s big enough to hold more than seven regulation basketball courts.

The bakery typically sells most of its product during the holiday season and this year they’ve almost doubled the work force to accommodate the rush. (They’ve also expanded to sell cheesecakes and coffee cakes.)

Marc O’Leary said the bakery will deliver more than a million products this year, most of them from online orders or to businesses outside of Kansas City. They were surprised to see their largest orders from Butte, Montana, where they learned a community of Croatians had settled to work in the mines.

Above the windows lining the bakery walls are grainy photographs that tell the family story going back to 1903, when they first settled in the area. O’Leary points to an enlarged image of his great grandparent’s wedding.

“She’s 16 and he’s 20,” he said. “Their name was Momchilovhicha. When they got to the
United States, they changed it to Monchil, so American school kids could say it.”

Like many Eastern Europeans, O’Leary’s ancestors followed the meat packing business through Ellis Island to Chicago and on to the rail and river hub of Kansas City. They settled in the West Bottoms in the early 1900s. But the big flood in 1903 destroyed everything and pushed the Croatians, along with other immigrant groups, across the river to fields of strawberries on the hills of Kansas City, Kansas.

O’Leary’s great, great grandmother kept the recipes she carried over in her suitcase:
Sarma, ground beef rolled in cabbage and cooked in soup with tons of garlic, and povitica, which translates to rolled or swirled bread or pastry.

“Great grandmother would gather her friends, show up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and roust everybody out of bed,” O’Leary remembered. “They’d wash the bed sheets, put them on the clothesline outside, come in and make the dough and filling just in time to bring the dry sheets in. They’d cover the long kitchen table, stretch the dough, fill and roll it to make the layered loaves of bread.”

 Bakers in white coats and aprons spread filling and work with dough at long table inside commercial bakery.
Laura Ziegler
The company increased the number of bakers to accommodate holiday orders. Here bakers are filling pastry dough with traditional English Walnut filling.

The hum of the bakery floor

O’Leary swung open the door to the bakery and we were immediately overwhelmed by the mouth-watering aromas of sugar and cinnamon, chocolate and cherry baking
in buttery pastry shells.

O’Leary stopped to pick up a baseball size piece of round dough on a tower of trays. One of the bakers stretched his arm to drop the dough balls in rapid fire through a wide funnel at the top of the massive machine. They came out as thin sheets about the size of large, oval tortillas.

“There are probably a thousand balls of dough right here,” O’Leary said. “We’ll sheet every one of those in the next couple of hours.”

Next, the sheet went through another machine, essentially a large electric rolling pin, that flattened the dough again, this time into a translucent piece of pastry.

“At that point it’s probably one-eighth or one-sixteenth of an inch thick,“ O’Leary said.
“Once it comes out of the second sheeter it’s called a skin. It’s so thin you can actually read a newspaper through it.”

In another section were a line of German-made Hobart mixers, hulking, enlarged models of your household Mix Master, but with a beater 20 times the size.

“They’re 60 or 70 years old,” he said. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

Eleven metal mixing tubs each hold 80 quarts of filling that will end up inside the rolled pastry. “These bowls are filled with roughly 900 quarts of really good filling: English Walnut, pure chocolate and lemon, made from real lemons,” O’Leary said.

Long wooden tables stretched in lines where bakers lathered the skins one by one. These fillings give this bread its heft. Each loaf is exactly 40 ounces, of which the filling is 28.

A person wearing a white apron is shown from the chest down. Their hands are folding over a large piece of dough covered in pink frosting with white chocolate candies.
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Bakers today use the same technique to roll the povitica dough that O'Leary's grandmother used. They lift the sheet quickly to roll the dough into a layered log of filling and thin pastry.

“And now we’re going to make it rain with a little white chocolate to finish the white
chocolate cherry,” O’Leary said. “Here’s where the magic comes in.”

For O’Leary, that magic is watching each baker lift up the edges of the table covering, just like his grandmother did with the bed sheets, to roll the dough into a layered tube of swirled pastry ready to be folded into a bread tin and baked.

Several loaves of brown-crusted bread sit in metal pans on a baker's rack.
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
The smell of freshly baked English walnut povitica is mouth watering.

On this day, the Strawberry Hill Bakery turned out 60,000 loaves. It will sell 600,000 this year, most of them during the holiday season. Despite the uncertain economy, O’Leary said sales are up this year.

“In hard times, you go back to the things that bring you memories,” he said, “ that help you remember the times that weren’t quite so hard. We’re one of those things.”

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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