Donna Register held the white Wilson’s Bakery box with both hands, as if it contained precious family gems; the fresh-baked doughnuts and apple fritter inside serving as sweet reminders of her childhood.
“My mom and dad used to come here and order our birthday cakes,” said the 45-year-old Warner Robins resident. “We’ve been using this bakery forever.”
So what’s so special about this bakery?
“The smell just hits you, it’s like no other,” Register said. “And the taste. You can’t find another doughnut that tastes like this anywhere.”
For more than 60 years, Wilson’s Bakery in the Miller Hills shopping center on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins has provided patrons with fresh cakes, cookies and other confections that keep families like Register’s coming back generation after generation.
A family gathering for Register is not complete without at least a few dozen flower cookies — soft, melt-in-your-mouth pillows of sugar, butter and flour topped with a swish and a swirl of silky and sweet butter cream frosting. They, along with finger nut cookies — a hand rolled nutty dough with the flavor of shortbread and a size about the length of a middle finger — are signature delicacies of the bakery.
The bakery originated in the late 1940s when Isac Nygaard, of Norway, opened the business on North Commercial Circle, which at that time was the heart of Warner Robins.In the 1960s, Nygaard’s Pastry Shop moved to Miller Hills, where it remains today, maybe not in look but definitely in the baking traditions of old masters.
In the meantime, Thomas Wilson of Perry had opened his own bakery, which included outlets in such places as Fort Valley and Montezuma. When Nygaard was ready to retire, Wilson bought the pastry shop in 1979 and moved his baking headquarters to Warner Robins. The business has since been known as Wilson’s Bakery.
“That’s when we got a taste for what a sure-nuff bakery was all about,” said Wendy Wilson Ventura, a daughter of Thomas’ who purchased the bakery from her parents in 1989, at the age of 21.
Now 42, Wendy is a combination of a grand bakery master and savvy business woman. She was raised in the baking business and learned from the best — bakers who maintained full control over their kitchens, never sharing their secrets, and grabbing a few hours of sleep while resting on 50-pound bags of flour stacked in a back corner of the store room. When she was younger, Wendy also would use a roll of towels tied with a string as her pillow.
“Every baker had a flour sack sleeping bag,” she said. “Flour is softer than 6X sugar. You’d get enough sleep to get by and keep going.”
Wendy and her brother and sister peddled doughnuts at a young age. The lure of a 50-pound bowl of butter cream frosting sweetened her desire to try cake decorating. Barely tall enough to see above the stainless steel table and her parents occupied with a salesman in the front of the bakery, Wendy stood atop a milk crate and decorated her first cake.
“I remember my dad saying it wasn’t half bad,” she said. “Needless to say, at 8 years old I gave up my childhood.”
But it is a world she continues to embrace. Though cigar boxes that held the money from doughnut sales have given way to electronic cash registers, and high quality “equivalencies” have made her life easier, the bakery still maintains the high standard of production and customer service instilled in Wendy by her parents, the Nygaards and other mentor bakers.
“The people were always my encouragement,” she said of her beginning years, “like the old timers, who loved to be able to please the customers.”
Many of those traditions continue today. A strong work ethic, focus on quality and customer service are mainstays of Wilson’s Bakery.
One of the most difficult tasks has been to relinquish some control. A dedicated staff of 12 have allowed her to give up her long days and sometimes sleepless nights. She can take vacations now, too, unheard of for a baker decades ago.
“It’s nice to take a day off, it’s nice to go to lunch,” she said. “And, as far as my staff, it’s nice to have folks who want to be a part of a 60-year-old business.”
Though she grew up with the mentality of the old-time bakers, Wendy said she had a lot to learn. There was a time when men were the bakers. The women made boxes and waited on the customers. Bakeries were closed Sundays for a day of rest and church, and Mondays so the owner could take care of business matters.
Wilson’s is open Mondays, high production days. Changes in the market, the tastes and needs of patrons and technology have posed challenges.
“When you’re in a world that’s ever-changing, you try to adhere to the old timers, but you also need to be able to adapt and change,” she said.
Wedding cakes are no longer a creamy white adorned with delicate, pastel colors. Bright reds, pinks and a cornflower blue are common themes sought after by today’s brides. And who would have thought a scanner and computer would be used to place an image on a cake.
For Wendy, adapting also meant learning to entrust her secrets and responsibilities to her employees. She no longer comes in at 1 or 2 in the morning to prepare the doughnut dough. A baker prepares and cuts the cookies. She continues to be the chief cake decorator.
“I can handle the stress because my plate’s always been full,“ Wendy said. “But for the first time in my life I said I can’t do it by myself. I had to delegate, get more educated, learn to work smarter not harder.”
Relinquishing some control has given Wendy time to “think outside the box” for ways to expand and enhance the business. She is considering adding a line of breakfast and lunch sandwiches. But patrons can be assured that every morning fresh doughnuts are being prepared.
The bakery uses about 3,000 pounds of powdered sugar a month to produce the butter cream used to decorate cakes and cookies.
A flower cookie and a bottle of chocolate milk is a regular order for 6-year-old Abby Dean of Perry. She, along with her mom, Tara, and little sister, Emily, make a stop at Wilson’s Bakery part of their weekend routine when running errands.
“They’re really good,” Abby said of the cookies.
While on this particular day Emily opted for just the chocolate milk without the chocolate chip cookie that usually completes her order, Tara walked out with two honey buns.
“One for now and one for later,” she said. “This is our Saturday treat.”
The Deans are not alone. By the time the bakery opens at 6 a.m., 300 to 500 dozens of doughnuts have been prepared, depending on the day and the orders. Not even a crumb remains by 10 a.m. many days.
Aaron Carter and his family like the doughnuts so much he places an order a day ahead to ensure a visit to the bakery won’t leave him disappointed. He appreciates the fact that all of Wilson’s Bakery doughnuts are prepared fresh the same day they are sold. “I would rather them sell out than sell old doughnuts,” said Clark.
A teacher and basketball coach at Northside High School, Clark and his family moved to Warner Robins three years ago from Florida. They had always enjoyed the tastes of doughnuts produced by a national chain. Not any more.
“These are the best,” he said, referring to the box of doughnuts he held. “We won’t touch the others now.”
Figurines of all shapes, sizes and nationalities decorate the business standing watch over the bakery. Cookie cutters, tarnished with age, now serve as decoration for the many shelves that line the walls of the bakery.
Amid the vintage flour sifter and scale are more modern embellishments — dog biscuits and jams, jellies and sauces bearing the Wilson’s Bakery logo — a caricature of “Little Miss Wendy,” complete with pigtails and a baker’s hat.
But it is the display case of gingerbread men and yellow smiling face cookies, apple fritters and cinnamon buns, date squares and brownies that cause just about all who walk in to be enveloped by the sweet aromas and want to press their noses against the case to get a better look at the treats on the other side.
In the spirit of the master bakers, it is the customers who Wendy said brave the Watson Boulevard traffic to make a special trip time after time that Wilson’s Bakery strives to please.
“You take that humbly and gratefully that people will come to your bakery,” she said. “We work hard to make it worth someone’s while to come to us.”