CULLMAN, Ala. – For 81 years, The Duchess Bakery has been a Cullman landmark, its famous donuts attracting customers from all over Alabama. Owner Larry Bontrager has been at the bakery for 43 years, and after nearly a year of consideration, recently announced he will retire at the end of May. The decision, he said, was settled after seeing how overwhelmed his sales staff became during the COVID-19 shutdown, as the bakery was short-staffed and under-equipped to handle the flood of customers who were unable to get their baked goods at other businesses. Bontrager said he was reluctant to hire and train more workers in the middle of a pandemic.
A Cullman landmark
The bakery has been a staple of downtown Cullman for several generations. Bontrager said Duchess has been in his family for more than 60 of the 81 years it’s been open.
He briefly outlined his time with the bakery and the changes that occurred during his time, saying, “I’ve been here for 43 years, my father was here for 48. We were partners that overlapped for a while, him and I. It was incorporated in 2000; I actually had some shareholders at that time, but as the years went by I repurchased their shares. They found other things they wanted to do, so I became the sole shareholder.”
Duchess is certainly locally famous, and Bontrager credits the community with helping make the bakery famous across half the state.
“The people of Cullman have been good to me, and actually the people of north Alabama have been good to me,” he commented. “The hometown folks are the ones who got the word out to the other folks. We had a lot of people who work at hospitals who would take product to work with them, and those people would come return and say they had my donuts in Huntsville or Birmingham or wherever, then they became customers as well.”
The bakery’s future
When asked about the future of the bakery, Bontrager said it is still uncertain as of Thursday afternoon.
“Hopefully someone will take it over and go on,” he said. “I’ve been bombarded with phone calls from people interested in purchasing, but there have been no agreements or deals made of any kind.”
He expressed some preference for potential buyers who already have the capital available to run the business, reluctant to have to wait for loans to come in.
He also stated he has not yet decided whether he will pass on the family recipe – which was developed by his father in 1960 and helped propel the bakery to fame – to the next owner. However, customers still have plenty of time to enjoy that family recipe, as the bakery will remain open for the immediate future to work through inventory.
Whether the bakery closes or stays open under new ownership, Bontrager expressed how he wants his time at Duchess to be remembered: “I hope they’ll remember the good products and the wholesome small-town bakery shop that tried to do their best.”
While Bontrager said retirement wasn’t an easy decision to make, he said it was time to let go, and he offered his sincerest gratitude to Cullman for 81 years of support and success.
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