Clasen's European Bakery: Enjoying the dark side

In Germany, it’s common for bakeries to offer not only breads and pastries but a variety of candies and confections as well. Clasen’s European Bakery has imported that European model in Middleton, Wisconsin, tantalizing customers with more than 500 delectable pastries, cakes, cookies, confections and Old World breads made from authentic German formulas.

Clasen’s new product lineup is all part of the bakery’s strategy to spur growth by staying on top of what consumers are looking for. “There’s a lot more public awareness right now about the positive benefits of eating chocolate,” Clasen said. “Our customers appreciate when we change things; they like us to bring them new products that are on trend.”

Experimenting in new directions is nothing new for Clasen, who has tripled bakery sales since she took the reins from her father, Rolf Clasen, in 1994. While experimenting with chocolate is a little different path than the bakery has usually taken, it’s not too far off direction for a master pastry chef who grew up in a family of bakers.

Michele’s father, Rolf, and uncle, Ernie Clasen, were 20 and 24 years old when they immigrated from Cologne, Germany to Middleton, Wisconsin in 1957.  They opened Clasen’s European Bakery two years later in 1959, offering products made from original formulas they brought with them. Michelle sojourned to Germany in 1986 to earn a pastry and baking degree at the acclaimed Fassbender in Seigburg before coming back home to manage the bakery.

She worked extensively with chocolate while studying in Germany, but it was a trip to France a few years ago that really opened her eyes to the possibilities of dark chocolate. “I gave my three children their first official education in chocolate tasting on that vacation,” Clasen said.

In France, they promote the percentage of cocoa in their chocolate very prominently on the label. She bought about six different types of French and Belgian chocolate, ranging from milk chocolate with a cocoa content of about 40% to a true baker’s chocolate with about 80% cocoa.

“We sat on the promenade, put our feet up and started tasting it,” she said. “I was teaching them how to melt it in your mouth — to put it on your tongue and push it up against the roof of your mouth. To sit them down and taste these different chocolates side by side was really a great experience. It hooked me! It got me away from eating plain milk chocolate to experimenting more — to see how different types of chocolate affect the flavor.”

Clasen’s has always stood for hand-made items, baked fresh daily, and made from high quality ingredients. They want to preserve the basic feel of the business as they grow. “When I was working in Germany, one of the master pastry chefs told me something that has stuck in my mind,” Clasen said. “He said, ‘If it’s not good enough for your mother to eat, don’t sell it.’ That has become our philosophy for the bakery in general.”

For example, when the bakery expanded its wholesale bread business (now nearly 60% of sales) to nearby Madison and Milwaukee, they adapted the schedule, not the method, to continue offering the fresh baked quality that made them successful. “We used to start at 3 in the morning. We still make the bread the same way, but now we start at 9 at night, and we’ve hired packers to come in every morning so we can ship the breads.”

The same, methodical approach is driving the expansion of dark chocolate products. “You have to take the whole of what you do and adapt it to fit with your growth, without changing it,” Clasen said. Yes, she’s adding some entirely new items, like hand-molded bittersweet chocolates from German candy molds. But for much of the line, she is simply taking basic, proven recipes like German butter cookies and enhancing them with dark chocolate to kick them up a level in quality.

“I’d like to raise people’s awareness that a quality chocolate is different than what you get in a chocolate bar. A small piece of really good chocolate is a treat. It’s something to savor versus just consume.”