Hot from the Oven: Paczkis, pastries and historic pride at Bennison’s Bakery

Mika Ellison, Reporter



This photo-audio story is a part of the Hot from the Oven series, a profile on local Evanston eateries to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of their staff, clientele and history.

Bennison’s Bakery has been in Evanston since 1938, and is loved by many long-time customers. Known for their seasonal pastries and traditional atmosphere, we talked to customers and employees about what makes Bennison’s a local favorite.

MIKA ELLISON: Bennison’s Bakery, on the corner of Davis Street and Maple Avenue, is pretty difficult to miss. Even in the middle of a snowstorm, the twinkling yellow and red lights on the bakery’s vertical sign are visible from a block away. In the winter, snow frosts the tops of the red awnings. Once you head inside, the smell of fresh-baked pastries fills the air.

MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison. This is Hot from the Oven, a limited podcast and photo series highlighting local restaurants and bakeries in Evanston. Bennison’s Bakery is a local stop for paczkis, hot chocolate and Evanston history. The bakery was first established in 1938 by Larry Bennison, a baker from Wisconsin.

NATALIE GILLESPIE: This place has been here forever. It’s an institution.

MIKA ELLISON: That was Natalie Gillespie, a Northwestern School of Communication graduate from the class of 2001. She has been coming to Bennison’s ever since she was an undergraduate. The bakery was passed from Larry Bennison to Guy Downer, who expanded the business and passed it to his son, Jory Downer. All three owners have been bakers themselves, and they’ve ensured that some of Bennison’s most famous recipes remain beloved classics.

NATALIE GILLESPIE: Their paczkis are to die for. It’s like a donut with special filling and special preparation. It’s just a little fluffier than normal donuts. And they’re just delicious.

MIKA ELLISON: Paczkis, one of Natalie’s favorites, are seasonal items, typically available around Fat Tuesday in early March. Like Natalie, many Evanston residents are Bennison’s regulars, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t seemed to put a dent in their devotion. During the initial onset of COVID-19, Bennison’s switched to exclusively delivery and curbside pickup.

MARY ELLEN MIDDLETON: They really adhered to protocols. They seem to really take care of their employees.

MIKA ELLISON: That was Mary Ellen Middleton, who’s been coming to Bennison’s for years for their croissants as well as to pick up treats for her grandchildren. She even has a Bennison’s magnet on her fridge. Mary Ellen said that Bennison’s followed pandemic safety protocols but never lost its old-timey charm.

MARY ELLEN MIDDLETON: It’s a traditional bakery. It hasn’t changed with the times, which is comforting.

MIKA ELLISON: I talked to Avery Bryant, a Bennison’s employee who attested to the bakery’s consistency.

AVERY BRYANT: I’ve been coming here since I was little — I grew up two blocks away.

MIKA ELLISON: In fact, Avery has participated in one of Bennison’s seasonal traditions for as long as he can remember.

AVERY BRYANT: Every December we hand out red envelopes and then bring them back in January and you get like free donuts and coffee and whatnot, and I’ve been doing that every single year.

MIKA ELLISON: The red envelopes, which contain coupons for free drinks or food, are a long-standing tradition that continued into this year. In fact, I spoke with Vishwas Narendra, an Evanston resident who came into Bennison’s to exchange a red envelope for a free hot chocolate. He said when he and his family moved to Evanston, they heard about Bennison’s through word of mouth.

VISHWAS NARENDRA: I think a lot of people are talking about it — it’s a bakery I like coming back to. I really like their hot chocolate.

MIKA ELLISON: Cassie Petey, another Bennison’s employee, said she and her partner return to Bennison’s because —

CASSIE PETEY: Me and my partner fell in love with the ciabatta. It’s the freshest bread you can find in the city.

MIKA ELLISON: For Mary Ellen, it’s because —

MARY ELLEN MIDDLETON: The croissants are fabulous.

MIKA ELLISON: It’s not just Evanston residents that have recognized Bennison’s quality of pastries: In 2005, owner Jory Downer competed in and won the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, a pastry competition in France — his trophy still sits in the window. Bennison’s also strives to maintain their pastry-making standards with the ingredients they use.

CASSIE PETEY: We local-source some of our items. We’re bringing in business for the city of Chicago.

MIKA ELLISON: Bennison’s bread and pastries also show up at other local spots, including the Northwestern coffee shop staple, BrewBike.

NATALIE GILLESPIE: They’re in other delis, people source their breads and their baked goods from here, so even if you don’t go to Bennison’s, you still see them all over the place.

MIKA ELLISON: But the physical bakery, with its light-up sign and cozy atmosphere, remains a spot people return to. Will Quam says he stops in at Bennison’s whenever he’s in the area.

WILL QUAM: It makes the whole corner smell really nice.

MIKA ELLISON: And when I asked people how walking into Bennison’s made them feel, they had one answer:


NATALIE GILLESPIE: It makes me happy.

CASSIE PETEY: Pastries. You can’t go wrong with pastries.

MIKA ELLISON: Whether it’s a warm donut, a sugary paczki, or just the bright lights from the Bennison sign on the corner of Davis and Maple, the bakery is here for Evanston residents, rain or shine, pandemic or not.

MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison. Thanks for listening to another episode of Hot from the Oven. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MikaEllison23

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