At Pearson’s Southgate Bakery, shamrock-shaped cookies, Irish soda bread and donuts topped with green sprinkles are vying for space with pecan coffee cakes and whole wheat bread. Near the cash register, the counter is filled with buttermilk pound cakes and boxes of chocolate chip cookies.
Business is good. “We’re busier, so we’ve got more variety,” said owner Paul Drzymalla.
The 77-year-old baker welcomes the community’s support of the bakery even as he and his family cope with the loss of his son-in-law and assistant, John Blount Jr., who was killed in a traffic accident Feb. 14.
“My daughter is coping. She’s busy with all the things you have to deal with that come after,” Drzymalla said.
For Drzymalla, it has meant working seven days a week. “John did the wholesale business,” he said. Among Pearson’s accounts is County Fair Grocery Store in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, where the coming of St. Patrick’s Day meant Drzymalla had to bake and deliver 200 loaves of Irish soda bread on a recent Friday — and another 200 loaves the following day.
Drzymalla said he’s hired a new employee and brought back one retired baker to help. But he still works until about 7 p.m. each night, returning to the Homewood store at 3 a.m. the next day to keep up with the increase in business.
Recent stories in the H-F Chronicle and on Facebook that spotlighted Pearson’s Southgate Bakery have brought more customers through the door, Drzymalla said.
Long-time customer Jennifer Molski of Flossmoor recently took a photo of Drzymalla, dubbing him the “Paczki King” in a Facebook post, and gave him a framed print that sits on the back counter, a welcome reminder of a recent swell of community support for the struggling business.
Running a small, traditional bakery is a big challenge in the best of times, he said, but misfortune made the task even harder in recent months. Facing health problems at Thanksgiving, Drzymalla closed the bakery during December while he recovered.
“That’s my busiest month,” he said.
While the shop was closed, customers began posting questions on local Facebook groups, wondering if Drzymalla was OK. He said he received calls and visits from several loyal patrons. One patron, Patrick Prombo, started a Facebook page for supporters of the bakery.
Then on Jan. 22, a few weeks after the shop reopened, local artist Ben Salus posted a message calling for people to rally around.
“I live down the street, and Pearson’s has been there longer than I’ve been alive,” Salus said in a message to the Chronicle. “I spoke to him after he was out of the hospital, and I shared his concern that he might have to close down if business didn’t pick up.”
Following Salus’ message, more community members posted messages offering support, sharing memories and urging others to patronize the business.
Maleesa Losnedahl of Shop Local Movement — South Suburbs and Northwest Indiana created a “cash mob” event on Facebook inviting area doughnut lovers to visit the shop Feb. 6.
The informal campaign had a good effect, and Drzymalla and his daughter, Jill Drzymalla said they had seen a big increase in business since the word went out on local social media.
“People have been saying, ‘I’ve been seeing this on Facebook about you needing business. I’m here to help your business,’” Drzymalla said.
He has owned and operated Pearson’s since 1965. He also owned Pearson’s Bakery in Chicago Heights until about 12 years ago, where he employed seven bakers to fill orders like 200 cheesecakes.
Drzymalla said the old-fashioned bakery business remains a tough one to keep going. He bakes everything on site with fresh ingredients like the fresh buttermilk he uses for his Irish soda bread, instead of buttermilk powder, which is cheaper. His product line is one that harkens back to earlier days: fresh bread, doughnuts, Danishes, pie slices, coffee cake, creme cake, wedding cakes and paczkis.
“Bakeries are closing up,” he said, and ticked off the names of half a dozen that used to be located in the South Suburbs.
But Pearson’s Southgate Bakery continues to endure through shifting trends.
“It would help if people would call in advance to order something they wanted,” he said. “That way, I’d know what to bake.”
Eric Crump contributed to this story, which appeared in the March print edition of the Chronicle.