The coronavirus pandemic has put many milestone celebrations on hold. From weddings to birthday parties, families are now finding ways to enjoy big days remotely — or canceling the festivities all together.
For millions of students in the class of 2020, a season of graduation parties is being replaced with virtual celebrations or quiet evenings at home.
To make the loss of those big bashes a little sweeter, one baker in Minnesota has found a sweet way to make local kids feel special.
Last month, Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop in the town of Red Wing decided to make a custom cake for every graduating senior at nearby Red Wing High School.
The inspiration for the kind deed came from an unlikely source. In April, Bill Hanisch, the owner of Hanisch Bakery, was watching a coronavirus pandemic briefing. After discussing statewide lockdowns, the governor of Minnesota started talking about Red Wing and, according to Hanisch, "He just had kind words to say about our town."
While watching the conference, Hanisch felt motivated to bring some joy to the students he now knew would be missing out on a special day. "I just knew we had to do something for these kids graduating from Red Wing High School,” he said. Hanisch himself graduated from Red Wing in 1988.
He called his decorator and posted a message on Facebook, letting followers know that his bakery would be making two-layer cakes for every graduating senior at Red Wing High — about 220 people. The cakes would also be decorated in the school's colors and they'd be free.
Soon after his first post went up, Hanisch got a call from a resident in the neighboring town of Goodhue, inquiring if he could do anything for their graduating seniors.
“I was floored!” said Hanisch. “The next day, I did another post announcing the Goodhue cakes. Next thing I know, a lady from Cannon Falls contacts me and wants to support her seniors! I posted that video the next day and then the rest is history.”
As word of Hanisch's custom cakes for seniors began spreading to different towns, the baker said his shop was flooded with donations, allowing him and his staff to continue taking and fulfilling new orders.
Most of the confections are made from white cake with a buttercream base. For the past month, Hanisch's baking team has been busy customizing every cake with the different schools' colors. Some locals have gone a step further to make their cakes even more special.
"For Red Wing, they (the kids) actually come to the bakery to get the cake, so they get their name on it and get to choose the flavor," said Hanisch, who added that other kids from smaller schools have been able to get personalized cakes as well.
For the rest of the cakes, Hanisch has been coordinating special deliveries with the schools based on their specific graduation timelines.
This week, Hanisch expects that his graduation cakes will make it to 14 schools and 16 towns.
“Over 1,100 cakes are being made and given to the graduating seniors for free from the support of family, friends, relatives, businesses and complete strangers,” said Hanisch. “My favorite delivery was to Blooming Prairie, Minnesota. They lost their longtime bakery in a fire last winter. It was very emotional for me.”
If a graduating senior who does not attend one of the schools Hanisch is making custom cakes for wants a treat, they are able to get a cake at a discounted price of $15 (normally they're $28).
As a business owner, Hanisch is well aware that this has been a pretty tough time for bakeries. He estimates he's lost over 60% of his usual business revenue since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Our coffee shop that seats 50 is closed. Our wholesale business was decimated with restaurant shut downs," he said. "June is typically one of our best months, but as of right now, we can't reopen our coffee shop yet, and the wholesale is slowly coming back."
Still, Hanisch is excited to be making cakes for hundreds of high schoolers and said his final big delivery is scheduled for June 12, when he'll be traveling to South Saint Paul, Minnesota.
"We have some cakes ordered through the month of June, individually for families celebrating a graduation at a later date,” said Hanisch, who added that the response from those donating to help keep his bakery business running has been “amazing and humbling.”
Being able to make cakes during this difficult time hasn't just put smiles on students' faces, but his staff members are grateful, too.
“We have been able to keep our 21 full-time employees working, bring communities together, and give kids a memory of graduation that they will hopefully remember forever," Hanisch said.