Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
The great thing about having a bakery that’s staffed mostly by Pennsylvania Dutch women? “All the girls already started out knowing how to do everything,” Keith Beiler says, gesturing to the commercial double ovens behind the sticky-bun station at Beiler’s Bakery, then to the bonneted women making and selling rolls, bread, apple and blueberry fritters, and doughnuts all around him. “It’s not like baking is a foreign language to them.”
Keith Beiler, is the 20-year-old son of bakery owner Alvin Beiler, an Amish-raised farmer from Lancaster County who married the Mennonite daughter of the first Pennsylvania Dutch merchant in the Reading Terminal Market. (After he converted to the Mennonite branch, Alvin Beiler learned to drive; he uses his van to ferry all his Amish employees from and to their farms back in Lancaster County every day.) Alvin Beiler took over the business when his in-laws retired after five years in the market, in 1985.
“Back then, the trains still ran overhead, and the whole place would shake,” Beiler says.
He expanded the business, adding a salad stall 10 years ago. A doughnut stand came two years ago, after customer response to the ones Beiler’s made for the market’s annual Pennsylvania Dutch festival was so great. Now Beiler’s dominates an entire corner of the market, and sells six or seven thousand doughnuts on an average day.
“The Bismarks go fast, but I like the salted caramel,” says Lizzie Riehl, the Amish woman manning the doughnut counter.
Riehl’s dressed in a black-striped grey frock, black apron, and an almost transparent white bonnet. She politely breaks off an interview to step up to the counter to help a gaggle of young tourists navigate the rainbow array of pastry options before them. Generations of baking tradition kick in as she guides them to the snack they’ll be talking about for the rest of the day: cinnamon-apple doughnuts.
“Apple fritters, blueberry fritters—people like those a lot too,” says Sadie Lapp, a Mennonite second cousin to the Beilers who’s pulling out a tray of chocolate-glazed doughnuts around the corner. Like the rest of her family, she’s dressed casually and comfortably, in this case in a bright red t-shirt, with her hair in a ponytail. “And the salted caramels.”
But when Keith Beiler started helping out with the business, back when he was only 12, his first job was across the way, by the double ovens to the right of the doors leading out of the market. He was on sticky buns.
“It’s the easiest thing to do,” he explains.
Beiler’s sticky buns start off the exact same way as the doughnuts, as a small boulder of cream-colored sweet dough in an industrial-sized mixing bowl, a tacky blend of spring wheat flour, sugar, yeast, butter, milk, and eggs. After the rise, the baker rolls it out on the counter, drizzles on the syrup—think butter, Karo syrup, and lots and lots of brown sugar—and generously sprinkles on a layer of whatever add-ons are called for—chopped walnuts or raisins, usually. Then it’s simply a matter of rolling it up, cutting it into slices, and sliding the tray of raw sticky buns into the oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes. The result: a chewy, gooey, crunchy explosion of sweetness.
“You can’t mess them up,” Keith Beiler says.
His dad shrugs it all off, too. Sure, folks rave about Beiler’s baked goods in and out of Philadelphia—Keith even had a group of Australians come in a couple weeks ago who said they’d heard about Beiler’s doughnuts, and longtime regulars jump at Alvin Beiler’s invites to a summer barbecue at the family farm in Lancaster—but to Alvin Beiler, it’s just old-fashioned Plain Folk baking, not some magic formula.
“We got the recipes from a neighbor lady, 60 or 70 years old, down the street back home,” he says. “She didn’t have it written down or anything, she just knew them, had them in her head. So we asked her, and she gave it to us. We all share recipes, it’s how we do it.”
Paralegal Adrienne Sheree, who stops by a few times a week for a Boston crème, or a carrot cake with whipped icing, on her way from the nearby courthouse, likes to think that “we” extends to non-Amish and non-Mennonites like herself.
“This is part of our culture, in our market, in our city, and the Pennsylvania Dutch are part of it, part of us,” she says.
Over her shoulder, Alvin Beiler shrugs: They’re just doughnuts.