St. Croix Baking Company owner, chef Charles Froke, was busy in the kitchen when I visited his shop on a Monday, a day it’s typically closed to the public. He’d been attending to a big bowl of some creamy, chocolatey creation when I arrived. There’s rarely a day off for this busy baker who braved an uncertain business environment to open St. Croix Baking Company in Hudson, Wis. in 2020. Passers-by would see us inside and pop in for a peek. Froke wouldn’t dream of turning any customer away. Never saying “no” is part of Froke’s persona after years as a professional pastry chef for a Four Seasons luxury hotel on the east coast. “If Oprah was at our hotel and wanted a cake, I’d drop everything and bake her a cake,” says Froke. “Whenever possible, I don’t say ‘no.’” That mentality permeates Froke’s new business. If a customer asks, “What do you have,” Froke replies with, “What do you want?”
Froke’s passion for baking goes back to his childhood in Minnesota. Both of his grandmothers and his mother often baked. “My grandma taught me to bake monster cookies,” says Froke who then points to packages of monster cookies for sale at St. Croix Baking Company, his grandmother’s recipe. Yes please! He also has fond memories of making spritz cookies at the holidays and building gingerbread houses with his mother, a skill that would be refined and carried forward to Froke’s professional creation of some impressively huge gingerbread houses.
But the stress of his corporate gig led Froke to lean into his dream of “doing his own thing.” Local restaurateur Pete Foster is a friend of Froke’s and helped review a business plan. “I started to get more serious about [opening my own business] around Thanksgiving 2019 and I quit my job in January 2020,” says Froke who was initially traveling back and forth from Maryland to Wisconsin to oversee the process. Leaving the hotel business when he did may have been prescient as Froke would have likely been furloughed in the early months of the pandemic. But it was also an incredibly trepidatious time to start a business. “I love a challenge says Froke, “but I was completely scared.”
Turns out, Froke’s extensive research into the St. Croix Valley’s growth potential along with a pandemic fueled exodus from metro areas to places like Hudson, Wis., meant he’d made a good decision. He says, “With lots of people working from home, I have regulars who come in for breakfast and also grab a bunch of stuff to take home. I’ll see some people multiple times a week or even several times in one day.”
St. Croix Baking Company offers up a little bit of everything, from breakfast pastries like croissants to cookies, bars and breads. Froke also bakes lots of cakes for any occasion including catered events like weddings. “We’re doing tons of cakes now,” says Froke. “Someone tastes one of our cakes at a party and then comes in to order their own. We have lots of repeat customers.” Froke also does his best to fulfill vegan and gluten-free orders. Over the summer, homemade ice cream was added to the menu. “We’re constantly doing new things,” says Froke.
Future plans include sandwiches using the bakery’s house-made breads, along with an expansion of wholesale distribution to make St. Croix Baking Company desserts and breads available at local restaurants. Froke is happy to be back in the Midwest to cheerfully treat local customers like celebrity guests by regularly asking, “What do you want? We’ll make it for you.”