This post is not about the heavenly treats made by Queen City Bakery [cringe-worthy slabs of butter churned into cookies, cakes, bars, scones, muffins, and quiche, plus homemade marshmallows floating in creamy hot chocolate and seasonal granola blends].
It isn’t about the airy café and loft they’ve created in a three-story-high, brick-walled warehouse space a couple blocks off the main drag, the building a triangle standing alone in the no man’s land between cross street and train yard.
It’s about the amazing community that I found there: the Lazy Susan of friends who stopped by to coo over the owners’ new baby and grab a double-chocolate cookie and Izze to go; locals breezing in for pre-ordered Mother’s Day goodies in boxes turned shiny-white-side-in and stamped on the brown paper top with the bakery’s crown logo; regulars sipping coffee and reading the paper at a counter overlooking the wide kitchen window.
As I said to the woman at the Sioux Falls post office — who saved me 60 cents in postage! — I travel a lot, to big cities and out-of-the-way towns, and never know if I’m going to be lucky enough to find good places or good people. Sometimes it’s all big grins and hearty welcomes, sometimes you stand out like a sore thumb, which garners either the cold shoulder or the evil eye, and sometimes there’s not much to speak about until you happen to wander into the right spot and find yourself at home.
Sioux Falls was last type, as I think a lot of places would turn out to be if given the chance. By Saturday night I felt like I had exhausted its resources — there were only a handful of mediocre restaurant reviews on Yelp [my trusted starting block for unfamiliar towns], the bartenders at Paramount didn’t bother with small talk, and I could get most anywhere without a map. And then I pushed open the unmarked, over-sized wooden door into Queen City Bakery Sunday afternoon and tumbled right into the heart of Sioux Falls.
I ordered a pesto and roasted tomato quiche and hot chocolate and plopped into a chair in the loft; it was the perfect vantage point for watching patrons come and go and eavesdropping on their conversations. Between E the barista and Mitch the co-owner, cradling a two-month-old in one arm, they knew every single person who walked into the joint. I grew up in a “hamlet” of four thousand people and wouldn’t be able to recognize a quarter of them, so the “small town” classification for a city of 200 thousand didn’t explain it. Sugar isn’t a registered addictive substance. What was going on?
Heading out I was waylaid by an elderly gentleman at the counter. F moved all the way from North Dakota to South Dakota to take a position as principal at a Sioux Falls high school. He watched thirty years of kids graduate, leave town, and eventually come back home. He outlasted two other bakeries before settling into Queen City for his coffee routine. Sounded like it was just happenstance — they put ads in the paper when they first opened and news spread mostly by word of mouth. [“Are those from Queen City Bakery?” the postwoman asked as I dropped bags of granola into a box, “They are THE BEST bakery in town!”] “So where in the world haven’t you been?” F asked when I told him what I do. “Dubai? Norway? Iceland?” “Have you eaten at Minerva’s yet?” “So what should I know about you?” “How do you not have a boyfriend?” Mitch joined and we talked about work, San Francisco, how he and Kristine and the bakery came to be. The talk was effortless [Tartine in SF is pretty awesome, huh?]— no pretensions [the savings in moving from NYC to Sioux Falls allowed them to buy a house and car, start a business from scratch, and have a baby, all in three short years], no hesitation sharing personal tidbits [both American, they met in France], with an immediate relationship switch from stranger to friend [“Ali, this is __, also a super genius who works at Sanford Hospital,” and the woman ordering a coffee blushed and brushed him off].
The next morning I was back for breakfast and traveling snacks. E was behind the counter, F arrived not a minute later. A blueberry scone and cappuccino, the New York Times, shootin’ the shit . . . I’m not a regular anywhere in SF, yet there I was, a bona fide member of the family after two days!
Some folks are good at shooting the shit, but you can tell when it’s actual shit as opposed to a real conversation. In Queen City people weren’t talking because they had nothing better to do, they were genuinely interested. So this was my explanation . . . People cared about each other here. And not only that, they cared enough to remember. I had the feeling that I could walk into the bakery a year from now and E would look up from the red velvet cake she was cutting, F would turn from his coffee, and Mitch would step out of the kitchen, greet me with a smile warm enough to melt butter, and ask for the latest ‘round the world tale. It sounds terribly sappy, and indeed I am incredibly suspicious when it comes to “too nice.” But this caring was different than the superficial “my momma raised me to be nice to the neighbors” politeness you might get in the South, or the irksome “maybe you’ll be useful” tone of businessmen on an airplane. It was a special combination of curiosity and respect. There was an ease to the conversation that encouraged opening up and sharing stories that might have otherwise been withheld until the ninth or tenth date. If I were the South Dakotan version of the Georgia Rambler I could have set up shop in the corner for a week and emerged with enough material for a hundred columns and twice as many friends. Mitch must have a stellar memory to keep track of all the lives he’s touched . . . And though I went to Sioux Falls with few expectations, I left with a few of those lives, a tiny slice of Sioux Falls, coming along with me.
I gave E my contact info in case she followed through with moving to SF, and F and I parted ways in the parking lot: “Good talking with you. Young people . . . don’t always want to listen . . . You’re wise. Take care now.”