This story first published in the October edition of Accent magazine, a supplement of the Observer-Dispatch.
Leslie Mondi stacks her goodies on the counter at Hemstrought’s Bakeries on Oswego Street in Utica. In a way, she’s carrying on a family tradition that began years ago.
As a child, she recalled, she would go to the Hemstrought’s store in South Utica with her parents and her grandmother.
“We’d get cinnamon buns and fried cakes and cookies. The frosting is so good, and the cinnamon buns, with butter on them, are so good,” she said with a lot of emphasis on the words “so good.”
The traditions have continued and underscore the bakery’s centennial. The business was started 100 years ago by Harry Hemstrought, who had trained to be an architect. His daughter-in-law Patricia Hemstrought, Robert’s wife, who lives in Sauquoit, shared some of the history.
Problems with his eyesight forced Harry, affectionately known as “H.B.,” to leave his architectural work in the Binghamton area and relocate to Utica, where he had family. He went to work with a local construction company. For reasons not known to Patricia Hemstrought, H.B. transitioned to a job in a bakery. Eventually, he would go on to establish his own place on Genesee Street in Utica and create the original halfmoon cookie.
In the late 1940s, H.B. turned the business over to Robert and son-in-law Richard Morgan after they returned from World War II. Yet H.B. continued to work there up until six months before his passing in 1970, Patricia said. Robert and Richard sold the business and retired in the early 1980s.
Over time, the bakery had different owners and has been at different locations. Today, it is situated at 900 Oswego St. in Utica, but despite the changes, the legend hasn’t been forgotten. With a banner over the front entrance that reads, “Home of the Original Halfmoon Cookie,” anyone entering the bakery is reminded.
Hemstrought’s current owner and Utica native Dan Dowe is well aware of the legend of the bakery, and he and his team have been marking the company’s anniversary for several months.
They still use the Hemstrought cookbook, Dowe said, and each month they’ve been reintroducing some favorites from the book, including cinnamon buns, the old fried cakes, butter cookies, apple rolls and marble cake.
Yet, arguably, it’s that halfmoon that probably has made the Hemstrought name so popular over the past century. With a recipe that hasn’t changed in 100 years, Dowe estimates they turn out 2 million annually.
The origins of the recipe seem to be unknown, but Patricia believes it must come from H.B.’s Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and the fried cakes, she said, are more like a cake batter, hence their name.
But what makes that cookie so good that it has stood the test of time?
Quicker than one can take a big bite out of the cake-like cookie with that chocolate fudge and vanilla icing, Dowe has the answer.
“The frosting,” he said. “It’s the buttercream frosting. Our cookie’s very moist, but our buttercream frosting is rich, and each halfmoon is hand-frosted. There’s an artisan feel for it. No two can ever be identical.”
That frosting is so special there is even a separate room inside the bakery where employees staff four stations and apply the icing on the chocolate or white cookie bottom. Dowe said those with the chocolate bottoms are more popular.
In honor of the 100th anniversary, the bakery is taking some of those favorites and coming up with new sweet treats. The original marble cake will be available as an all-purpose sheet cake for any celebration or gathering, Dowe explained. They have plans to launch Hemstrought’s a la mode, which he said, are ice cream sandwiches using the vanilla cookies with vanilla ice cream, chocolate cookies with chocolate ice cream. Double the deliciousness.
And apparently, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the team’s creativity with their halfmoons. Dowe explained they’re developing a vanilla cookie with orange flavor with the top covered in yellow and white frosting. The working name is Rising Sun, playing off the halfmoon name. They also are planning to make the butter cookies, currently in the Oswego Street store and online, available to the retailers they service, he added.
Dowe grew up in Utica, went to Fordham Law School and became a lawyer in New York City, but he found himself migrating more and more toward the food industry, establishing companies and handling the financial aspects, he said. He even has served as the chairman of the Specialty Food Association.
“The food gene, I was born with it,” he joked. His father, Albert, ran Dowe’s Market, which had been located in Columbia Square in Utica. And while attending Thomas R. Proctor High School, he worked at the Gold Medal Dairy, which he says made the best Italian cheese products in Utica.
While in New York City, he learned of a food business opportunity in his hometown and started putting investors together. While that plan didn’t come to fruition, he became reacquainted with Rich Viti, the then-owner of Hemstrought’s Bakeries, who offered to sell him the business.
While Hemstrought’s, at one time, was a retail chain with about 12 stores throughout Utica, Dowe said, it eventually consolidated, and the products were sold wholesale through supermarkets and the storefront on Oswego Street.
Once Dowe toured the massive building and saw the number of ovens and other amenities, he realized the possibility of using the facility to continue the Hemstrought’s line and to expand into the growing European bread and artisan cheese market and to bridge the legend of the bakery with an expanding new trend in the industry.
As the executive chairman of Artisanal Premium Cheese, Dowe is bringing together the traditional and the new — his new Artisanal Premium Cheese brand together with the legendary Hemstrought’s.
Dowe is planning to expand the Oswego Street site by the fall, to include refurbishing the Hemstrought’s Bakery, while retaining its charm, and to build out a separate European-style cheese shop. He said he wants to do for cheeses what Starbucks has done for coffee.
“Our over-arching goal is to add more to the exterior so the property becomes another special place in Utica on the visible arterial,” he noted.
Moreover, he’s bringing together his love of his hometown with his business acumen. He believes that any part of Utica’s continued growth has “gotta be the sons and daughters of this town that bring it back.”
This is the town where he learned to work hard and love it, he said.
He recalls there were times when he’d bring his wife, Janet, and their four daughters to Utica to visit family. On their return trip to New York City, he said, he would be approaching the entrance to the Thruway and a heaviness would hit. Currently, he splits his time between Utica and his home and work downstate.
The company also is utilizing the internet in a big way. Calling it 100 years meets new, Dowe said the internet is allowing them to share the Hemstrought quality and name with the nation. The internet has been instrumental in bringing artisan products direct to the consumer, he said.
In January of this year, Hemstrought had 72 online sales and jumped to 333 in May, and Dowe predicts those numbers will grow exponentially.
They have updated their two websites — www.hemstroughts.com and www.artisanalcheese.com, the latter one with a bakery section, offering Hemstrought products.
As Hemstrought Bakery celebrates its 100th anniversary, it appears that it’s well on its way to creating traditions among a new generation of customers.
“I’m proud that the name is still going on, and I know my husband and his brother-in-law would be very honored and happy, as well as H.B.,” Patricia Hemstrought said.
ADDRESS: 900 Oswego St., Utica
WEBSITES: www.hemstroughts.com, www.artisanalcheese.com
STORE HOURS: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Saturday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.