Since 1911, Roeser’s Bakery has been in the same location on North Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. In fact, it’s the longest continuously operated and family-owned bakery in the entire city of Chicago.
While the bakery’s location and the Roeser family’s ownership have remained the same, the West Side community that it serves has changed. Its earliest customers were German and Scandinavian immigrants moving into the new neighborhood, followed by an influx of Russian Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles. Humboldt Park became a destination for immigrants from Puerto Rico in the 1960s. Today, six days a week, you can step into Roeser’s for a loaf of German rye, a pastelillo de guayaba, or an elaborate birthday cake, all packed into the bakery’s iconic electric-yellow boxes.
Currently at the helm is fourth-generation baker John Roeser IV, a booster for the family business who enjoys telling stories about his great-grandparents John and Hattie Roeser—sharing how they came to Chicago from Germany via England to start the business at a time when supplies were delivered by horse and wagon and most homes and businesses had no refrigeration.
Today, six days a week, you can step into Roeser’s for a loaf of German rye, a pastelillo de guayaba, or an elaborate birthday cake, all packed into the bakery’s iconic electric-yellow boxes.
“You have to remember, back then bakeries weren’t seen as shops full of indulgences,” he says. “It’s where you got your fresh-baked rolls and loaves of bread for the day’s meals. You couldn’t just buy bread at a convenience store or at a gas station. If you wanted baked goods, you went to the local bakery.” He adds that many people weren’t traveling across neighborhoods and few had cars, so stopping by his family’s bakery was part of the normal rhythm of daily life. “I bet my great-grandparents sometimes saw people two, even three times a day.”
John tells me that, “back in the day,” there were at least eight family bakeries between Kedzie Avenue to the east and Cicero to the west, a distance of about two miles. So, I ask, how come Roeser’s is still standing while all the others are gone? “I think we’ve always wanted to feel like this is a place of comfort, an inviting place. Through all of the different generations and even the changes in the neighborhood, we’ve felt that we’re part of this community. The ongoing attitude has always been, You take care of us, we’ll take care of you.”
Maybe that’s why many Chicagoans consider Roeser’s the place for special occasions nowadays—the kind of bakery that gets cake orders from the suburbs, because it’s where the family has always purchased theirs and a party wouldn’t be a party without one. But it’s also the bakery where kids from down the block come to get a cupcake, or a delivery guy might duck in for a cheese Danish and a cup of coffee.
At the peak of the pandemic, when bread was flying off the shelves at grocery stores and bakeries were categorized as essential businesses, John decided to go back to the bakery’s roots and remind people how good fresh-baked bread can be. With each purchase, up to a point, customers got free loaves of bread. For the first time in decades, the bakery was making hundreds of loaves a week. “I mean, we started as a family bakery, selling bread. And I have always thought that our bakery is an essential part of the community.” He has a point. If bread is life and cakes are comfort, then Roeser’s has been offering essential services in Chicago since 1911.