Jory Downer had just lay down around 11:15 pm when the phone rang. It was an emergency.
The doughnut fryer wouldn’t light. Although he’d already worked 12 hours that day, Downer got up and headed back to Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston to figure it out. At 5:30 am he returned home, slept for two hours and then woke up to call the repairman. But Downer, 56, who owns and operates Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston, doesn’t let losing a night of sleep stop him.
“This is it, this is what I do,” he says. “Since 1975, if I’m in town, I’ve never taken a day off.”
Most days, Downer is at Bennison’s from sunrise to sunset, 5 am to 5 pm. Through the course of our two-hour chat, he layers, fills and decorates seven different cakes. In between, he answers phone calls, fields questions from his staff and helps hunt for baking sheets. Though his stout frame stands at just about five-foot-six and his buzzed gray hair has left the top of his head for good, what Downer lacks in vertical presence or youthful vibrancy he makes up for with sure-handed guidance and unyielding work ethic.
“He knows his stuff, he’s great at what he does, he knows what’s going on always,” says store manager Samantha Falcinelli, 26. “He’s your go-to-guy.”
As he lays a printed Lego Batman image on a white sheet cake, Downer talks about how he learned perseverance from his father, Guy, who, despite his lack of baking experience, decided to purchase Bennison’s in 1967. Guy would often sleep in the back of the bakery instead of commuting home every night to Harvey, Ill., a southern Chicago suburb about an hour from Evanston. Downer’s mother helped wherever she could, and young Jory, an only child, was brought on board “from day one.”
“On Valentine’s Day, I went to school with red hands, Halloween I went to school with orange hands, St. Patrick’s Day I had green hands,” Downer says.
Downer’s hands are red today, too, as he plunges into a bucket of gooey strawberry filling for the yellow cake he is crafting next. Throughout high school, Downer worked at bakeries on the South Side of Chicago, where he says he learned more techniques and approaches than he would have just staying in one place. He started full-time at Bennison’s when he was 17, and over the years, has gradually taken over.
Although he is now a certified master baker, having fulfilled the requirements of the Retailer’s Bakery Association in 2001, Downer never attended culinary school. Like his father, he learned most of what he knew from on-the-job experience with established methods that, like many bakeries, included the use of frozen or processed ingredients. But in 1997, after taking three courses at the National Baking Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Downer’s eyes were opened to the value of quality and freshness, and he cut out the use of non-dairy topping and artificial flavors in favor of butter, heavy cream and organic vanilla bean.
“You’ll never make anything good out of lousy ingredients,” Downer says as he slathers the layers of a chocolate cake with raspberry jelly. “Start with the good stuff and respect the process, and everything else will take care of itself.”
Living just a few miles away in Wilmette, it has been easy for Downer to bring the whole family on board at Bennison’s. His wife, Patti does office work for the establishment. His son Guy II, 29, and his daughter Jordana, 26, have both attended culinary school, and now work at the bakery (only his youngest daughter, Deanne, 23, doesn’t have an interest in the family business). Downer said that his kids will one day take over, but that doesn’t mean he’s leaving any time soon.
“I’ve never had any aspirations to retire,” he says. “My dad’s 90. He’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
The younger Guy was quick to describe his father as a “workaholic” but says that didn’t take away from his commitment to the family.
“My dad, no matter how busy he was, he never missed any sporting events,” Guy says. “He was always there.”
Yet the Downers have never spent a major holiday together at home; those are, after all, the bakery’s biggest days of the year.
“We have a pretty unique lifestyle, people don’t understand that,” Downer says. “We’re responsible for making everybody else’s holidays happy.”
But Downer says this doesn’t bother him, and neither does the lack of sleep or the long hours.
“It’s not work to me,” Downer says. “Somebody asked me one time, ‘What’s the worst part of my day?’ I said ‘leaving.’”
Location: 1000 Davis St, Evanston IL
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat 6am-5:30pm, Sun 7am-4pm