Raphael’s 2016

Doughnuts! When the grandson comes to town, we go to Raphael’s Bakery and Café. On one trip, an attempt at rearranging a mangled doughnut with “sprinkles” met with the “death stare,” a shaming, pointing index finger and, “No Grandpa.”

Ray and Brenda Sweeney purchased the old Naylor’s building for their business in 1989 and remodeled it in 1991. Later, more work was done on the apartments upstairs.

Ray grew up around baking. He worked in his father’s bakery in the Twin Cities starting when he was ten years old, icing cupcakes and doughnuts. He worked at different bakeries in the area including Byerly’s, until the family came north, drawn to the area by stays at their cabin on North Twin Lake. Ray’s father purchased the Blackduck Bakery and the family moved there in 1973.

Brenda and Ray met in 1972. They have two children, Ryan, who works as a baker (doughnut master), and Megan who is manager of the Bemidji Target store. Many of their five grandchildren can be seen before or after school or on weekends in the café.

Bakeries in times past used to take Sundays and Mondays off, but Raphael’s has chosen not to. Vacations are few and far between. The bakery and café have seasonal and daily rhythms. “There is usually a steady flow. Holidays are busiest,” reports Brenda. “We manage things differently during the holiday season because of the perishables. Help over those times can be a problem also. People need time off. There are few backups.”

Both Ray and Brenda are early risers, but not as early as Ryan and Mike Pannkuk who arrive at two a.m. They start the doughnuts and Danish, then mix and scale flour for breads and buns. When Ray comes in between four and five a.m., he helps at the mix bench and the proofer, a temperature and humidity controlled cabinet used after dough is made up for the day’s baking. Raphael’s provides baked goods to Slims and some gas stations and convenience stores in the area.

Ray shares his recipes. The results have a lot to do with intuition and experience. “If you give the formula to ten different bakers, you most likely will get ten different results. We like to welcome people and have fun. Things need to be reasonable and simple.”

“No matter the customer’s disposition, they are all treated the same. We adapt. Wait staff is respectful of those who like to tease and others who like to be left alone,” reports Brenda

Some tables are reserved for different groups. Waitresses have nicknames for people and put down their preferences on sheets of paper and place them in a box until they know them better. Waitress hires are by word of mouth. Most have been with the cafe and bakery for two and half to four years. “When I make a hire, I look for that special something that will make them a good match. We have a lot of nice people working here,” says Brenda.

The restaurant doors open at five a.m., but “officially” opens at six a.m. “Years ago Elvie Burnham came in early and got the coffee started.” Brenda oversees the bakery counter and menu planning. All the restaurant recipes are hers.

Daughter-in-law Maria manages the dining room. Both she and her sister Angela Sanden can sense the mood of the room and adjust. For Maria every day is different. “You come and get a feeling of how it’s going to be. I read it, see who is here, and make it a point to get around the room. The people that come here become like a family. If someone hasn’t made it in for a while other customers will call them and check in on them.”

Both Maria and her sister Angela have worked in customer service. Maria trained as a travel agent in the Twin Cities and had thoughts of being a flight attendant. Both women worked at McDonald’s in Bemidji for extended periods of time where they learned customer service and management skills that Brenda feels have made them invaluable. Angela says, “When you get here you put a smile on and get to it. If things become routine you change it up and try something different. Attitude and team work is important. You have to trust one another.”     

Cindy Andreas of Puposky is a long time waitress. She worked in home health care for three and half years before coming to work at the restaurant. “I was a waitress when I was younger.” When the time came she picked Raphael’s and was hired right away.  

“I like serving people and dealing with the regulars. I like the interaction and fast pace. Working in a place where you are isolated all day doesn’t suit me. I want to give good service.”

She comes in at five a.m. which means she is up before four. “Busy times are from seven to eight a.m., but every day is different.” She loves customer’s funny and entertaining stories. “I especially like the ‘coffee ladies’. People here are pleasant to work with. You can’t be lazy.” The women who work the bakery counter and put in time back in the kitchen executing Brenda’s recipes are also part of the team.

Friendships develop between customers and wait staff. Shelley, another waitress, enjoys doing things for some of her elderly customers. “She will grocery shop, help put up holiday decorations and visit with them. It’s part of her daily routine,” reports Brenda.  

There are a multitude of breakfast and coffee groups at Raphael’s. The Byron Lundmark group on Saturday mornings are regulars. They have been coming for fifteen years for fellowship and friendship. Their wives have their own table adjacent to theirs. Byron says, “There is just something about this place. We’ve been coming her so long we get a reserved table.” Terry Smith chimed in, “We aren’t snowbirds. We don’t go any place.”

Jim Fink, another weekday regular, had this to say, “Brenda and Ray give a lot to the community. They do a lot of donated baking for different fund raising events.”

So when you think doughnuts, don’t think about those sitting on the kitchen counter in a cellophane bag for four or five days. No it’s the one with the “sprinkles” on top, mangled by a little boy, fresh, every Saturday morning. Just remember 444-BUNS.

This is one of the threads that is woven into Bemidji. There are many more and there will be more to tell.

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