By Josh Kramer
Lambros Duni wakes every morning well before 5 a.m. Sometimes, Duni, who owns Heller’s Bakery with his brother Aleks, must wake up at midnight or 1 a.m. if a baker cannot come into work. Duni must know how to make everything that his bakery sells, from doughnuts to brownies, (with the exception of the bagels, which they buy wholesale) in case someone is sick.
The Dunis, a Greek family who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, maintains this commitment to tradition, and to doing it right at Heller’s Bakery – a Mt. Pleasant neighborhood icon started by post-World War I German immigrants. This Old World institution serves as a neighborhood bakery for Mt. Pleasant, one of the most diverse small neighborhoods in Northwest Washington, D.C., wedged between the the larger, higher-profile Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. Mt. Pleasant has, in recent years, become home to a large Latino population, immigrants Central America, mostly El Salvador.
The area also attracts younger white residents who enjoy Mt. Pleasant’s lower rents, its central location and the eclectic strip of restaurants and stores on Mt. Pleasant Avenue that includes Heller’s.
“What makes it nice is the diverse neighborhood,” says Duni. “Everybody knows everybody. People care about each other.”
The Heller brothers — German immigrants themselves — bought the bakery in Mt. Pleasant in the 1930s. By 1954, the family-run business had expanded to six stores all over the District. After the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the other stores were closed, and the Mt. Pleasant bakery traded hands until the Duni brothers bought it four years ago.
Kirstra Otto moved to Mt. Pleasant seven years ago, in the beginning of the neighborhood’s current wave of gentrification. Otto has been patronizing Heller’s since she moved, and she enjoys their baked goods, especially the doughnuts. Otto remembers little difference before the Dunis bought Heller’s and after.
“Everything I’ve ever had here is excellent,” Otto says.
Though they did not know anything about operating a bakery, the Dunis retained much of the staff and made an effort to not make too many changes to the store. However, Lambros Duni noted that it is important to keep one’s business “up with the times,” while embracing tradition.
“It should change because nothing stays the same,” he, adding that he strives to keep his business cleaner and safer, while improving the quality of theingredients.
Local competitors such as Cake Love on U Street – which has been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s television show – attract customers with new specialty cakes like “Cynthia’s Sin,” a cake that the shop’s Web site describes as being “like a candy hurricane ripped through the bakery and left a present behind.”
To that, Lambros Duni answers, “If I worked in Georgetown [or an up and coming area like U Street], I’d probably make fancier cakes. But fancier is not necessarily better.”
Ann Amernick, an assistant pastry chef at the White House from 1980 to 1981 and owner of bakeries in Wheaton, Md., and Cleveland Park, agrees with Duni.
“It’s not about the fancy,” says Amernick, “It’s about what’s in the cake.”
According to Amernick, extremely high rents, competition from chains and customer unfamiliarity with quality baked goods make it extremely difficult to operate a true neighborhood bakery.
Erica Sanford, manager of Cowgirl Creamery, a local cheese store, thinks that neighborhood bakeries are important and needed in D.C. Sanford first saw the success of local bakeries while living in Napa Valley, Calif., and earning a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America’s California Campus.
Sanford says that at a good neighborhood bakery, “they stick to more of what they know … Safeway won’t do that.”
Duni stressed that Mt. Pleasant is good place to a have a bakery because there is a strong sense of community through diversity. Duni says that he knows most of the business owners on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, and that he meets with them once a month where he represents Heller’s and Marx Cafe, which the Dunis also co-own.
Heller’s makes cakes to order, including cakes shaped like cars and animals. However, Duni says that the most popular cake is his Bavarian Food Cake, which has fresh fruit and custard.
Amernick remembers making a similar cake in her Wheaton bakery, and though she said she disliked making it, she said that she made it anyway because it was so popular with her Latino customers. Duni attributes that to the cake’s lightness, a contrast to similar confections.
Though Amernick hasn’t been to Heller’s since Duni and his brother took it over, she says that it sounds like it qualifies as one of the “truly old-fashioned bakeries.”
“It’s just the giant cookie now…the giant muffin,” she says. “Neighborhood bakeries are the real deal.”