Trefzger’s Bakery has satisfied the local sweet tooth for more than a century. Today, this legacy is fueled by new owners, loyal customers and the bakery’s signature thumbprint cookies.
Jeff Huebner’s mother used to tell her friends she hoped her son would own Trefzger’s Bakery one day. And though she never told him so, one day her dream came true.
In 1993—more than 130 years after it was founded by Simon Trefzger—Huebner became the first person outside of the Trefzger family to own the bakery. While bakeries and confectioneries have come and gone over the past century and a half, Trefzger’s has outlived them all.
For the Trefzger family, the secret of their success was the tried-and-true dessert, with a little something extra. “They always strived to be better as far as the ingredients they used and the product they put out,” Jeff says. “Even with something as simple as the springerle cookies… A lot of the other bakeries made springerle cookies. But at Trefzger’s, they cut it with a little fluted cutter so it had a nice design to it. They didn’t want to be just like everybody else.”
Endurance through Family
The final Trefzger to own the bakery, Joe, considered closing its doors when his children decided to pursue other careers. But then current Peoria City Councilman Chuck Weaver, who had loved Trefzger’s thumbprint cookies as a child, stepped in and purchased the bakery. Weaver needed to find a baker who could also run the shop, and Huebner fit the bill. “I grew up in Peoria, but I had only been a customer at Trefzger’s once before I became the owner,” he says.
Huebner and his wife, Martha, met when they were both pastry chefs in Chicago, and they’ve worked together ever since. “I love it,” he says. “We’ve worked together since the day we met, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Family has always been the backbone of the bakery, Huebner adds. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the [Trefzger] family kept it going… And it kept going so well that it survived all those years.”
Before he took on the Trefzger legacy, Huebner learned about baking by helping his mother in the kitchen. Later, after attending school, he worked at bakeries and catering companies to refine his craft. “I picked up more at the shops I worked at than I did in school,” he says. “That’s really what you find anywhere—you pick up more skills and ideas on the job than you do when you’re going to school.” He also taught for four years at a vocational high school, where “I learned a lot more by watching the students make mistakes, and my having to teach them,” he says. “It progressed from there.”
Tradition with a Twist
Today, most of the desserts are still crafted with original Trefzger recipes, but Huebner and his staff have added their own flavor. “They started off being Joe’s recipes, but we’ve changed and tweaked some of them over the years,” he says. “The cinnamon rolls, for example.”
The new cinnamon roll recipe came from the store’s manager, Donna Draher, who had been employed at the bakery for several years before Huebner took the reins. And Draher, a cake decorator-turnedmanager, continues to seek out new recipes for the bakery. “The latest thing… that Donna brought in is the dessert cupcakes,” Huebner says. “Everyone wants cupcakes right now.”
Red velvet, German chocolate, strawberry shortcake, and peanut butter cup are some of the latest flavors. Draher adds that red velvet, far and away the most popular, flies off the shelves daily. Her husband, Steve, is also a trusted member of the Trefzger’s staff. “[Steve] is my best friend,” Draher says, “like Martha is Jeff’s best friend.”
On a typical day, the bakery prepares 450 pounds of buttercream frosting. On one particularly busy day during graduation season, that amount doubled—which is not out of the ordinary for late May.
“Christmas and graduation are our busiest times of the year,” Huebner explains. During the Christmas season, Trefzger’s bakers prepare about 19,000 cookies every Sunday. “Donna has got a whole group of family [members] who…come in and help assemble our Christmas cookie assortment boxes.”
The top-selling item at Trefzger’s is their signature thumbprint cookie, and Huebner and Draher agree the most memorable project they’ve taken on was a life-sized gingerbread house for 2003’s Festival of Lights. “It was basically the size of a garage. Their carpenters built us a frame, and we decorated the rest,” Huebner recalls. “We covered the whole thing in gingerbread and icing, covered the roof in Cocoa Krispies, and put thumbprint cookies around the window.”
“The inside was done with royal icing and candy canes, and the decorators made pictures out of icing,” Draher adds. “We used gingerbread for the bricks, and the windows were made of sugar.” The house took about a month to complete, and for the Trefzger’s staff, it was a chance to savor the season. “That was probably my favorite year,” says Draher. “It gets so busy around here [during Christmas]… but that year, every time we were working on it, it was like you got to enjoy another piece of Christmas.”
For Jeff, a highlight of his day-to-day duties is delivering the wedding cakes. “I like going to the reception halls and hotels and seeing those people that are working with the same brides that Martha has dealt with,” he says. “It’s nice to make the connection with other people in the business.”
Continuing the Legacy
Moving from baking to business was not the most natural transition, Huebner says. “Neither myself nor Donna had done a lot of the administrative stuff,” he says. “We kind of muddled through ourselves.” But even on their busiest days, Draher says that organization has been just as critical to the bakery as craftsmanship. “When you get too many hands in the pot, you just can’t get everything totally organized, and the customer’s the one who pays for it in the end if we make a mistake.”
Trefzger’s community legacy has been a valuable source of new customers. “Most of our business comes from word of mouth,” Huebner says. “But one of the things we started years ago is having our boxes printed. So everything goes out in a box or bag that has our printed logo on it. That is the best advertising because they know where the cake they just ate came from.”
Both Huebner’s and Draher’s children have helped out in different facets of the bakery. So, are there any future bakers in the mix? “Our daughters have worked in the store, and the oldest really enjoyed cake decorating,” Huebner says. “Our youngest daughter will be helping out throughout the summer, so who knows? She may find that she likes working here.”
But the Trefzger’s family extends beyond blood relatives—and that is what has kept the business alive all along, Huebner says. “We’ve found that friends and family are very reliable when you need them.” iBi