Putting a New Spin on Prized Traditions and the Small Business Spotlight
When Tony Wuesthofen returned from his New York education at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to join the family business at Clasen’s European Bakery this year, it wasn’t that hard a decision.
“I really love the Madison area,” Tony said. “I grew up here. I have a lot of good friends here. This is where all of my family is. So that's a lot of what drew me back.”
And the bakery, with all its familial history, was calling.
“It's really cool to be the third generation. I'm lucky because both my grandpa and my mom still work here all the time,” he said. “You could tell there's a lot of knowledge there, three generations. And I think it's pretty powerful, the three of us being together.”
For the extended Clasen family, food isn’t just a business. “I think it's something we take for granted because food is just a part of our lives,” Tony said. “My mom, me and my grandpa, we all love to cook. So even when we get together at dinnertime, we'll just be sitting there talking about, you know, this chicken we made earlier in the week.
“I mean, we don't really talk about it too often, what it means to have all the generations in the business, because it's kind of normal to us,” he said. “I get a lot of advice from my grandpa and mom, sometimes they'll get real and they'll say, ‘You can't ever do this,’ or ‘Make sure you always keep this true to yourself.’ So it's more casual, but it’s there.”
Relating to people was one of the big lessons Tony took away from his time at culinary school. “One of the most general things that isn't really food related is they teach you a lot about hospitality and just how to take care of your customers, how to talk to people,” he said. “You have to look past just the product and realize that you're taking care of people.”
And taking care of people was key for Clasen’s during the pandemic. After closing down when COVID-19 first hit, Michelle Clasen not only re-opened the bakery. She and her team set out to bake 10,000 of their signature Morning Buns and gave them to staff at UW Hospitals and Clinics, other medical clinics and first responders.
“The clinics and the police departments and the fire stations, I just contacted all of those people, who were happy, thankful,” Michelle said. “And it was also an opportunity to talk to other people since we were all locked down for a while.”
Those acts of generosity drew the attention of American Family Insurance, which is featuring Clasen’s European Bakery in its Small Business Spotlight video series. Among the places that video is being aired is on the big scoreboard at American Family Field during Brewer games.
“A realization during the pandemic I very quickly came to was, as a business, it was not a choice to fail,” Michelle said. “We couldn't fail because we had people counting on us. Tony was counting on this place as being the place where he's going to work, and I had that responsibility to my dad. We could write a little book on how to survive a pandemic as a food business.”
That passion is evident when talking with Tony, who said he senses the weight of legacy. “I do feel a big burden. I also have a lot of help here. I'm not running the place or anything, but I'm learning a lot quickly,” he said. “We’re kind of a big operation for a bakery. It's unique. There's no class that kind of teaches you things that this business does. We're very open to whatever people want. And I think over the years, that's what's built this place up and made people love it.”