A taste of the past

Jeanne’s, known for its classic cakes, baking up new items, too

Every cake box from Jeanne’s Bakery, located at 931 Notre Dame Ave., comes stamped with the words, “We make memories.” If you think owner Jerry Penner paid some pricey, high-falutin’ ad agency to come up with that slogan for his business’s iconic confections — which, through the years, have been enjoyed by prime ministers, Queen Elizabeth II and the king of game shows (Monty Hall’s a big fan, we understand) — guess again.

A few years ago, Penner was working behind the counter of his store when he got into a conversation with a woman buying a marble slab cake. She lived in Vancouver, she mentioned, but had made the trip to Winnipeg on behalf of her mother, who had passed away that week.

“One of her mother’s wishes was that there would be a Jeanne’s cake at her funeral,” Penner says, seated in his neat-as-a-pin office.

“As she was leaving, she turned to me and said, ‘I just want you to know, this is more than a cake — this is a memory,’ at which point we both started crying.”

You would be hard-pressed to find many Manitobans who don’t have at least a passing acquaintance with Jeanne’s cakes. After all, it’s been 81 years since Jeanne Van Landeghem, the West End locale’s matriarch, began marketing her log-style confections, renowned for their shortbread crust base, Belgian chocolate swirls and butter icing. Except when Penner sat down with Van Landeghem’s grandson Donald Van Landeghem in 2003 to discuss purchasing the bakery from his family — more about that shortly — the only Jeanne he was familiar with spelled her name with an extra vowel and lived in a glass bottle on TV.

Penner grew up in Steinbach. Because his two older brothers were bakers, he went into that field as well. In 1980, at the tender age of 22, he bought an existing business in Winkler called Valley Bakery & Pastry Shop.

Li Pan and Davian Penner create masterpieces on the cake production line at Jeanne’s Bakery.
Li Pan and Davian Penner create masterpieces on the cake production line at Jeanne’s Bakery.

“There were 25 employees, and the next youngest person after me was 30,” recalls the married father of six.

“My first day on the job, I was in the kitchen surveying the workflow when one of the workers, who didn’t know I was the new boss, approached me and said, ‘Don’t you think you’ve been standing around doing nothing long enough? You should probably get to work by now.’”

In 2003, Penner turned the bakery over to his two oldest sons. It wasn’t that he wanted to retire; rather, he had decided the time was right to explore business opportunities in “slightly warmer” parts of the country. He flew to Victoria and Kelowna to check out properties that were for sale, but none of the established bakeries he looked at “clicked.”

Figuring he would find a place that suited his needs sooner or later, he returned to Winkler, where he kept himself busy running deliveries to Winnipeg for his sons. It was during one of those drop-offs when he heard about Jeanne’s Bakery for the first time.

“One morning, a wholesaler I was delivering to said, ‘Did you hear the news? Jeanne’s is for sale.’ I was like, ‘What’s Jeanne’s?,’ at which point he gave me a copy of the listing.”

Cake decorator Ashley Bradburn writes messages on the desserts.
Cake decorator Ashley Bradburn writes messages on the desserts.

Penner didn’t give the piece of paper much thought, tossing it onto the backseat of his vehicle. He read it over more closely when he returned home, at which point he contacted the listing agent, stating he preferred to meet the owners face-to-face instead of going through a third party.

During Penner’s initial, two-hour get-together with Donald Van Landeghem, the two men spent “maybe five minutes” crunching numbers or discussing the company’s bottom line. They devoted most of their time chatting about what Jeanne’s cakes mean to folks from this neck of the woods.

“Here, it’s almost like you’re more of a caretaker than an owner because the bakery really belongs to the people of this city and province,” Penner says, noting he never gave a second’s thought to changing the name above the door from Jeanne’s to Jerry’s after assuming control.

“I haven’t discussed this with too many others, but Donald saw me, I believe, as a person willing to take on the sort of sacred trust that Jeanne’s (Bakery) is. While talking with him, I came to appreciate the loyalty people have towards this product and felt, if I bought the business, I would need to steward things accordingly. I still feel that way, to this day.”

Over time, umpteen gallons of ink have been spilled detailing how ex-Winnipeggers from all four corners of the globe make pilgrimages to Jeanne’s Bakery, when they’re back in town visiting friends and family. Some of Penner’s regular customers work at the airport; they tell him hardly a day passes when they don’t spot somebody walking through the terminal with one of the bakery’s telltale boxes under their arm.

A couple of former Winnipeg residents who have resettled in Calgary don’t have to travel quite so far to get a taste of home.

Sue Ghebari and her husband are the owners of a Food Fare outlet on 19th Street N.E. in Cowtown, a store that just so happens to be the only place west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border that keeps a healthy supply of Jeanne’s cakes in stock on a regular basis.

“We bought the store in 2008, and the owners before us were originally from Winnipeg, so they stocked Jeanne’s cakes,” Ghebari says over the phone.

“When we took over, we decided to carry on that tradition.”

Every other week, Ghebari signs for a shipment of 100 Jeanne’s cakes, which are brought in directly from Winnipeg. That number may seem substantial, Ghebari says, but it isn’t to people who need reassurance there will be a cake available when they walk through her doors.

Baker Yuan Gao pulls a rack of cakes out of the oven.
Baker Yuan Gao pulls a rack of cakes out of the oven.

“We’ll get people driving through Calgary on their way to Fort McMurray or wherever who will call ahead and tell us to put a cake aside under their name,” Ghebari goes on. “I’ll tell them not to worry, we have plenty in the cooler, but they’ll answer, ‘No, you don’t understand. You have to put one aside. I can’t take any chances.’”

Being an Albertan, Ghebari admits she used to be curious why so many ex-Winnipeggers wouldn’t dream of toasting a birthday, anniversary or even the arrival of a new puppy without a Jeanne’s cake.

“One time, I even said to a person buying one from us, ‘What’s the big deal with these things anyway?’ At which point she opened the box of the cake she was paying for and said, ‘Here, have a bite and see for yourself.’”

Ghebari’s review: “They don’t taste anything like those sweet, store-bought cakes you get everywhere else. There’s texture, but they don’t have that same thickness that makes you feel full after eating a slice.”

Containers of cake icing.
Containers of cake icing.

On a weekly basis, Penner’s staff bakes between 1,500 and 2,000 cakes — slightly more in busy weeks such as the one that just passed, leading up to the Easter holiday.

Those are hefty sales figures, for sure, but Penner, who stores Van Landeghem’s original, handwritten recipes in a safety deposit box, isn’t exactly resting on his laurels. The bakery recently added its own line of pizza dough to the mix, the owner’s reasoning being if there’s a birthday party taking place, there are usually a few pizzas close by. As well as upping Jeanne’s presence on social media, via a Twitter feed and Facebook page, Penner is also planning to reintroduce a few items his company’s namesake used to offer in the 1940s and ’50s.

“I have an old (recipe) book of Jeanne’s, and one of the things in it is a cherry blossom brownie,” he says. “It has a very unique ingredient I never would have guessed would be in a brownie, so I’m really excited to see how that’s going to go over.”

The only other thing Penner may want to consider somewhere down the line is a table and chairs for customers who can’t wait until they get home to dive into their purchases.

“We actually began offering plastic knives and forks after we started noticing all these people sitting in their cars in our parking lot for 15 or 20 minutes, eating their cake,” he says laughing.

Winnipeg Free Press – Print Edition – March 25, 2010 A2

Left out of the group? Chew on an old cookie

Nostalgia brings back sense of belonging
By: Shannon Proudfoot

A Jeanne’s Bakery cake can evoke all kinds of nostalgic emotions in those who long for a taste of home.

Feeling left out? You’ll probably gravitate toward foods that filled your fridge, programs that were on television and cars that populated driveways years ago, a new study suggests.

And what’s more, people find genuine comfort and a sense of belonging from nostalgic products when they’re feeling forlorn, according to the latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. “Nostalgic recollections tend to be much more likely to include other people and people you feel emotionally close to than they are to include recollections of you doing things by yourself,” said Katherine Loveland, a PhD candidate in marketing at Arizona State University and co-author of the study. “When you consume a nostalgic product, it’s sort of prompting all these memories in your brain of times when you consumed this product in the past with close others.”

To test this and create a feeling of social exclusion in the lab, the researchers set volunteers up with a computer game called Cyberball, in which they were told they would be playing with three other people who would decide how often to toss a ball their way. In reality, they were playing with a computer that decided whether to play fair or opt to exclude the volunteer after the first few tosses.

The researchers measured people’s need to belong after playing the game, after asking them to choose between nostalgic and contemporary products such as cookies and shower gel, and then again after they’d consumed those nostalgic products. They wondered if simply choosing a nostalgic product would be enough to make people feel less left out, Loveland said — but they found it’s actually eating that brand of cookie from childhood or watching that favourite TV show from university that gives people a boost.

“We found it’s the act of consuming a nostalgic product that does make you feel connected to other people again and satiate(s) your need to belong,” Loveland said. “We thought it was really cool that when we gave them a nostalgic cookie, it made them feel all better.”

The human need to feel included is so powerful other researchers who have run the Cyberball experiment and told participants the other players were neo-Nazis found the volunteers were offended when they believed the skinheads were choosing not to play with them, Loveland said.

“We have such an innate need to belong that we’re upset when we’re rejected even by people that we hate,” she said.

Many of the studies for the paper were conducted in the Netherlands with nostalgic brands unfamiliar to most North Americans, but the U.S. studies pinpointed the movie The Sandlot and TV shows like Saved By the Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as nostalgic fare for university-aged young adults, and the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle as nostalgic cars for people of varying ages. Those associations suggest there are some universally nostalgic products and others that are unique to certain age groups, Loveland said.

Nostalgia is also driven by geography, if Jerry Stubbs’ Nostalgia Foods is any indication. Stubbs founded the company a year and a half ago after mulling over the idea for years, he said, and he now ships sentimental Winnipeg-only food to former residents throughout North America, averaging one or two orders each day, ranging in cost from $100 to $500.

There’s a “tremendous” emotional pull to local products like Jeanne’s cakes and Gondola Pizza for people who long for a taste of home, he said.

— Canwest News Service


Winnipeg Free Press – Sunday, April 16, 2006

Icons: We dream of… Jeanne

Local bakery’s unique cakes are the sweet stuff of Winnipeg legend

HOWZABOUT this for “taking the cake”?

“It was my husband’s 45th birthday,” says Marianne Savard, “and I did what I always do. I called Jeanne’s Bakery on Notre Dame and ordered a Jeanne’s Cake to be delivered to the IGA on Provencher.

“When I went to pick it up on the day of the party, however, it wasn’t there.”

Befuddled, Savard asked the clerk to double-check. “She couldn’t find it anywhere, then she looked in the log book and said, ‘Oh, here’s why. You’ve already picked it up.’ I said, ‘What? I didn’t pick it up.’ So then she showed me a receipt with the signature of the person who had paid for it.

“I couldn’t believe it — who would buy a cake with ‘Happy Birthday, Bert’ written on it? I mean, I love Jeanne’s Cakes, but what kind of person could possibly want one that bad?”

Apparently, some people have no shame when it comes to craving the legendary Winnipeg delicacy. Jerry Penner, the current owner of Jeanne’s Bakery, is actually compiling testimonials like Savard’s.

“We hear so many stories about Jeanne’s cakes, often from people just standing in line, that we thought we’d try to put together a little history and print it on the boxes,” he says.

Rest assured that Penner has no plans to change the name of the local institution’s signature sensation to the Jerry’s Cake.

“I’d be crazy to,” says Penner, who bought the business three years ago from the grandson of cake matriarch Jeanne Van Landeghem. Indeed, the log-style confection, renowned for its shortbread crust, real butter icing and Belgian chocolate swirls, is as much a part of Winnipeg’s ethos as the Salisbury House Nip.

Van Landeghem made a name for herself almost 60 years ago during a royal visit.

“In the 1940s, the Queen was being entertained at Government House,” says Penner. “Jeanne was asked to bake danties for the occasion and from what I understand, the Queen liked them so much she asked Jeanne in for a private visit.”

More recently, actress Jennifer Lopez was invited to give a piece a chance while in town on a shoot. “Her birthday fell during the filming of Shall We Dance? and a cake was sent over. Before she left town, she ordered two more,” boasts Penner.

“I’ve been in the baking business for over 30 years — I’ve actually travelled a fair bit all over the world as well — and I’ve never run across a similar product,” he adds.

While birthday festivities do make up the bulk of the hundreds of daily pre-orders, Penner says there are some customers who will mark any occasion that comes along with a Jeannes Cake.

“Dog’s birthdays, funny anniversaries, you name it. People will even invent a celebration in order to get a cake.”

A word of warning: If you didn’t pick up an Easter cake before reading this article, you may already be out of luck. “Easter is definitely our busiest time of the year,” says Penner.

How about those loyal ex-‘Peggers who, whenever they visit, make Jeanne’s Bakery their final stop on their way out of town?

“Just recently there was a businessman in from Toronto who picked one up on his way to the airport,” says Penner. “It turned out that his flight had a long wait on the tarmac and people were getting so unhappy that he broke out the cake and shared it with everyone. I hear it had a very calming effect.”

Jeannes Bakery, 931 Notre Dame Ave., is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 AM to 5:30 PM; Saturday from 9 AM to 5PM.


Winnipeg – June 2, 2004

Jeanne’s Bakery Serves Up Famous Cakes to Martin

For generations, those celebrating birthdays in the Boswick family have made a trip to Jeanne’s bakery for her famous cakes. But this was the first time they’d ever bumped into a Canadian Prime Minister while picking up the sweet treat.

The Prime Minister stopped the campaign bus so he could get a quick tour of the institution on a swing through the city. Just as he arrived at the bakeshop, June and Walter Boswick were at the cash about to purchase a birthday cake for a party this Saturday. It’s something June has done since she was a child, and now does for her grandchildren.

“I was very surprised to see him,” said June of the PM. “I recognized (local candidate) David Northcott, and I think he’s done great work for the city.”

The staff let Martin in the kitchen of the west-end bakery to show him the tools of the trade. Legend has it that the quaint bakery rose in popularity because it used to make a type of cookie called “dainties” for the Queen Mother, said Francine Cianslone, a Martin supporter who helped arrange the Liberal leader’s visit to the bakery.

“Every time a government-related function happened they would provide the dainties, and the business has been passed down through the generations,” she said. “It’s known as one of Winnipeg’s greatest,” enthused the forth-year criminology and psychology student at the University of Manitoba.

Before leaving, Martin purchased four of the famous log cakes – two banana and two marble, complete with chocolate shavings – and handed them over to hungry journalists.

“They are delicious, I’ve had them myself,” said Cianslone.

“I think it was very important that he visited such a significant Winnipeg institution. It’s certainly a well-known place in this city, and we try and tell tourists about it,” she said.


Winnipeg – Winter 2005

The Icing on the Cake

It can’t be described. In can’t be imitated. There’s simply nothing like a Jeanne’s cake.

If you spot someone on the street carrying a rectangular box with a telltale string wound twice around, you know exactly what’s inside. What you see someone at the airport with a cakebox in hand, you know an ex-Winnipegger is going to get a treat from back home. It’s common knowledge that Winnipeggers are divided into two distinct categories – those who love the shortbread crust and those who despise it.

For over half a century, youngsters have been pleading for a banana Jeanne’s birthday cake while couples celebrating a silver anniversary opt for a marble log large enough to feed a burgeoning family. One look at those pastel flowers and chocolate shavings and everyone is asking for a piece that’s just a little bit larger.

Look closely on the box and you’ll find an interesting line.

“Purveyors to our royal visitors at Government House.”

This lofty designation dates to the late 1940’s when the royal family came to visit. It was Jeanne’s Bakery that supplied the danties at government house. Apparently the treats were a big hit and Jeanne’s was granted the privilege of becoming the official supplier. The story goes that Jeanne Van Landeghem, the bakery’s namesake, would go to government house to have danties and tea with any visiting royalty.

Jeanne’s cakes have always had a celebrity appear. Jennifer Lopez celebrated her birthday in Winnipeg while she was here shooting “Shall We Dance?” Her cake came from Jeanne’s. Reportedly, her handlers ordered a couple more cakes several weeks later. Like us, they were hooked.

The bakers at Jeanne’s tell us it takes only 15 seconds to decorate a cake. For some of us, it takes about that long to devour a piece.