OTISCO TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — An Ionia County bakery is closing after serving the community for more than a decade.
Otisco Bakery and Basics’ last day open will be Aug. 31. The owner and head baker, Karlene Johnson, said it’s simply time.
“The chapter has — it’s gone. It’s a good thing,” she said. “… If we’re lucky, life goes on and we keep doing other things. So you don’t have to stay right where you are. And that’s what everybody was about the bakery: ‘You can’t quit, you can’t do it.’ No, I can. It’s very simple. You just try something new.”
‘LOVE DOING MY PART’
Johnson first opened the bakery on the corner of Button Road and Whites Bridge Road in Smyrna in 2011. The little town she grew up in was “looking really sad,” she said. The bar across the street was closed and buildings were torn up.
The baker set out to “pick things up,” she said. She didn’t start the business to make money, but out of the love she has for the town.
“The little place next door became vibrant … People were just more interested in the town. And we started doing Christmas lights and people were wanting to help do things like that,” she said. “It usually just takes a little enthusiasm on one person’s part to get more going.”
Johnson’s grandparents had their first kid in Smyrna, she said, and her mother raised six kids there. Her grandparents were “community-minded people,” she recalled.
“It was your community and you needed to … do your part. But I love doing my part,” she said. “And then the kids all started to grow up and they all felt the same way.”
‘MAKE EVERYBODY HAPPY’
Her daughter, Joana Johnson, has worked as the manager at the bakery. They sold items like baguettes, sourdoughs, breads, cinnamon rolls and cookies, all baked from scratch.
Karlene Johnson first found a love for baking when she was young, when her parents would bring her to a restaurant in Greenville. The chef would come out of the kitchen, she recalled, and everyone would be excited to see him.
She couldn’t wait for him to stop by their table.
“It always has stuck with me. And I said, ‘I want to be the person like that, that makes everybody happy.’ Because you could see it. I was probably 6 years old, 7 years old, I could see it. Everybody was happy when he came around,” Karlene Johnson said.
She eventually went to a small culinary school, where she realized she had a passion for baking. She went on to study baking at King Arthur Baking School in Vermont, where she learned to perfect her baguettes from Jeffrey Hamelman.
“He had been the first American to win the Coup du Monde award for baking in France,” she said. “He’s famous, but he turned out — he said he’s just a normal guy just like everybody else.”
FROM MUSKEGON TO ARIZONA
Since opening, Otisco Bakery has brought in people from all over. A man from Muskegon drives to the bakery just to get their peanut butter cookies, Joana Johnson said, while another customer from Arizona always stops by the bakery while in the area.
Multiple groups of cyclists from the Grand Rapids area often stop halfway through a 60-mile bike ride, she said.
“The cyclists are probably the most sad, I think, because they’re not going to be able to refuel,” she said.
They often hired recent high school graduates from Belding High School.
“I got to employ some of the most wonderful kids and send them on their way. And still they come visit us today,” Joana Johnson said. “I think that’s the biggest memory for me is that we have amazing people who have worked for us, and they all come back.”
Joana Johnson said her sister eventually bought the bar across the street and many younger families moved to the area, some opening a flower farm or a goat farm.
‘TRYING TO KEEP UP’
In May of 2019, Karlene Johnson had a stroke. She considered closing the bakery then: It brought with it lots of frustration as she struggled to do things like running the cash register.
“I could no longer be as helpful as I wanted to be, and that bothered me,” she said. “That I couldn’t — the girls were working harder, you (Joana Johnson) were working, everybody was working harder. When I used to be the one to get there at 5 o’clock in the morning and do the work and I loved it. I loved that.”
“We were always trying to keep up with her, and then it became more that she was trying to keep up with us,” her daughter added.
Still, it didn’t keep Karlene Johnson from baking bread, which was ingrained in her, or making connections in the community.
“My dad’s not a very talkative person, so this has been her social place,” her daughter said. “This is where she keeps up on her speech, and everybody who comes in wants to talk to Karlene, and I always have to go back in the kitchen and tell her that someone’s here to see her.”
“I like all the people in Smyrna. And all I do is talk to people and be with people,” Karlene Johnson said. “I never … said, ‘Well, I’m going to do this until I die.’ So it just, it was the time. And that was (that), the decision was made. Right then and there.”
As they get ready to close up shop, many have stopped in to show their support. Some have asked if they’re able to freeze some of the items they sell, while others have asked for a recipe book.
The support has been overwhelming, Joana Johnson said.
“Everybody who walks in the door is sad. It’s been nonstop. Everybody who comes in is sad. They want someone to come in and buy it and take it over and do exactly the same thing,” she said.
Multiple people have expressed interest in buying the building, she said, but nothing is set in stone. Some would reopen it as a bakery, while others would turn it into a different type of store.
They’ll support whoever ends up in the building, Joana Johnson said.
“I want to make sure that the person who takes over the building is as welcoming as we were. That was … my biggest intent for the bakery was to be a place that was inclusive and welcoming,” she said. “Not just the people who live in Smyrna, but to anyone outside of Smyrna too.”
The day before they close, they’ll be doing lots of baking in anticipation of their closure. After they close, the women plan on doing something with the other bakers to celebrate.
Karlene Johnson said she couldn’t have done it without the help of her daughter and the other bakers.
WHAT’S NEXT: WEEKENDS OFF, ‘I WON’T DISAPPEAR’
As for what’s next, Karlene Johnson is excited to get her hip replaced. After that, she’s not sure exactly what she’ll be doing, but she said she won’t stop doing things for her community.
“I won’t disappear,” she said. “I’m just not going to have a big bakery.”
She’s going to keep the status quo, she said — “unless I can get to Paris.”
Her daughter said she’s a little sad to say goodbye to the bakery.
“It’s been really nice working with my mom for 11 years. Not many people get the chance to do that,” Joana Johnson said. “But … like she said, it’s time to move forward for everybody.”
“I’m not going to work weekends,” she said when asked what’s next for her.
She got a job working as an office assistant for a construction company and looks forward to enjoying her weekends. She said she’s also interested in the community of Otisco Township and may run for office.
Karlene and Joana Johnson said they’re grateful for the support they’ve had over the years.
“Thank you,” Joana Johnson said. “To everybody who’s ever walked in the door.”