Kindness Baked in at Kirschbaum’s
Western Springs bakery continues a legacy of serving cookies with a smile
Two grandmothers, a grandfather and a dash of great aunt were the ingredients for Penny Kirschbaum’s baking career.
Penny’s grandmother Wanda Gworek lived in Brookfield and had been a longtime customer at Kirschbaum’s Bakery on Burlington Avenue in Western Springs since 1954.
“She knew I was interested in baking and when she heard there was an opening at the bakery, she thought it would be a nice place for me, coming from a country town,” says Penny, who grew up in Thompson, Ill., population 600.
Three days after high school graduation in 1985, Penny started at Kirschbaum’s. “Big city” living was a little overwhelming at first, she recalls. “But I learned to love it. I lived with grandma in Brookfield for six months to learn my way around. After a year and a half, Mike and I had gotten to know each other at the bakery and started dating.”
Though going out with the boss’s grandson was a bit scary, “We fell in love and here we are!” They married within five years, more than 30 years after Mike’s family had entered the bakery business.
Lester and Cele Kirschbaum had bought a small bakery/deli on Hillgrove Avenue in La Grange from Cele’s recently widowed sister. They quickly realized they liked the bakery part of the business better than the deli, so they bought a bakery that was for sale in Western Springs. They lived above it, running both businesses for a year or so before selling the La Grange store.
The Kirschbaums’ son Bob began working full-time at the bakery after attending Dunwoody Baking School in Minneapolis — and after a childhood of helping out his parents. He met his wife Charlene in college. The couple were running the shop when Penny began as a sales clerk. All five of their kids worked at the bakery at some point.
“Bob and Grandpa taught me to decorate — I’ve decorated hundreds of cakes and pastries,” says Penny, the only decorator since Bob and Char retired 10 years ago. “I thoroughly enjoy it; it’s my creative outlet.”
Ten years ago, Penny invented one of the shop’s most popular Valentine’s Day items — conversation heart cookies.
“It’s a sugar cookie iced in pastels and we write on it with white chocolate — things like “Be Mine,” like the conversation hearts.”
The shop’s longtime trademark has been its smiley-face cookies — a sugar cookie with butter cream icing.
“Grandpa started making them when he came back from the service, to put a smile on people’s faces,” says Penny.
Kirschbaum’s is a “buttercream bakery,” Penny says, no new-fangled fondant for this old-fashioned family of bakers whose motto is “The Taste that Brings You Home.”
Competing with the big superstores takes as much hard work as it did back in their forebearers’ day. The Kirschbaums still use the same ingredients as in grandma and grandpa’s day — all from scratch, no mixes.
“We make our cakes like your grandma would, with butter and flour,” says Penny.
“The Danish and cake recipes are still original.”
Their efforts are rewarded by loyal customers who love to tell the staff their sweet memories — such as how their dad used to bring home Kirschbaum’s coffeecake every Saturday.
“We’re so fortunate people travel the distance, wait in line and are excited to get our bakery products,” says Penny. “We have the best customers — they are so kind and generous to our sales clerks.” Penny and Mike continue their family legacy in another way — all of their kids have worked in the shop. The eldest, Steve, is currently working there full time. The younger kids help fold boxes and wash pans.
“It’s a fun place, but lots of work! Their favorite treats are always changing — brownies, smile cookies, cake cups, eclairs …”
One thing that does not change at the small, old-fashioned bakery are the commitment to its founders’ quality standards and principles of customer service.
“I learned so much from them. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t hear grandma or grandpa saying something in my head,” says Penny. “Grandma used to say, people don’t get that upset over baked goods. If they’re having a tough day, they deserve extra kindness to help them with what they’re going through.” Good advice from Kirschbaum’s comes with a smile (cookie).Edit Module