February 2014 Issue
The Gottenbusch family’s Servatii Pastry Shops have become a Cincinnati favorite built on old-world-style desserts with a few modern twists.
The array of pastries on display is dizzyingly decadent, enough to make the most sophisticated sweet tooth swoon.
thoroughly European macaroon torte of tender yellow sponge cake layered
with almond paste and homemade apricot and raspberry jams shares shelf
space with a rum-soaked tiramisu. On the shelf below, a white chocolate
mousse torte nearly disappears in a lacy cloud of white-chocolate
The selection of tortes goes on and on: Black Forest,
mocha truffle, opera crème, chocolate mousse. And that doesn’t include
the pies, cheesecakes, cookies, sweet rolls and other delights available
at the Servatii Pastry Shop in Cincinnati’s upper-crust Hyde Park
Yet co-owner Gary Gottenbusch, a third-generation,
European-trained certified master baker, is dissatisfied with the
assortment, which customers have thinned during hours of exhaustingly
“This is the end of the day, so everything’s a little bit picked over,” the 48-year-old says apologetically.
constant quest for perfection has allowed the little bakery that Gary’s
German-immigrant father Wilhelm started in this same neighborhood 50
years ago to thrive as other independent competitors closed their doors.
Gary, his younger brother Greg and their father have opened a
main baking facility in northern Cincinnati, expanded the Servatii
product line to more than 400 items, and put many of them in
supermarkets across the state: The Andersons Market in Sylvania, near
Toledo, Andersons the General Store in Columbus, Buehler’s Fresh Foods
in Wooster, Dorothy Lane Markets in Dayton and Heinen’s Fine Foods in
Cleveland and suburban Chicago.
But in an age of one-stop
shopping, the Gottenbusch family continues to lure customers to their 13
Servatii Pastry Shops throughout the Greater Cincinnati area with a
combination of elaborate confections and everyday staples such as breads
and rolls, all made with the highest-quality ingredients they can get.
“The secret to our success,” Gary says, “is making it worth the trip.”
Gottenbusch, now 79, comes from a line of bakers. He knows little about
his grandfather, a consequence, Gary says, of constant moves and
records lost during and after World War I. But as father and son sit in
the baking facility’s conference room, they point to framed photographs
of the Café Servatii, which Wilhelm’s father George opened in Münster,
Germany, after World War II. He named the now-defunct pastry shop after
St. Servatius, patron saint of the gate into the walled city.
tradition dictated that Wilhelm take over his father’s business, Gary
later divulges that his father didn’t feel the shop’s master provided an
adequate apprenticeship. As a result, Wilhelm completed his education
at a pastry shop in the German city of Ulm. He then spent five years
continuing to train as a pastry chef in businesses throughout Germany
Wilhelm arrived in Cincinnati in 1957 after an
unsuccessful job search in New York City and found work at a local
bakery. After two years of military service as a cook at Fort Knox, he
returned to the Queen City and took a position at a kosher bakery. But
he was unhappy in a place where he couldn’t make the European pastries
he loved. “My wife said, ‘If you don’t like to work for them, then start
out on your own,’ ” he remembers.
In 1963, Wilhelm opened his
own business in a storefront just east of Hyde Park Square. He called it
the Servatii Pastry Shop, after his father’s establishment. The term
“pastry shop” and the fancy goods it sold — items made with marzipan and
covered in chocolate — were unfamiliar to many locals.
more people traveled overseas, they developed a taste for Wilhelm’s
creations. In late 1972, he moved his operation to a space in a new
strip mall a couple of miles away, right across the parking lot from a
Kroger — the highest-volume store in the national supermarket chain at
that time. Wilhelm’s competitors considered the move a risky one. Gary
explains that supermarkets typically offered a larger variety of baked
goods at lower prices. However, the shop benefited from the traffic.
we were kids, there were people who would line up for an hour or more
outside of the store [around Christmastime],” Gary recalls. “They would
get a number from the counter, go across the street to Kroger and go
shopping, and then come back.”
Servatii still makes a number of
the same delicacies George Gottenbusch produced in his Münster pastry
shop. Gary singles out tortes such as the Black Forest, which includes a
layer of whipped cream flavored with real cherry brandy, and holiday
treats such as speckulatius
, a thin ginger cookie in the shape of a soldier or other old-world figure.
apple and cherry strudels still contain a layer of sponge cake to soak
up fruit juices from the filling and keep the puff pastry from getting
soggy. Similarly, Danish are brushed with apricot preserves to add a bit
of acidity and amber color and keep the boiled-butter icing from drying
out or being absorbed.
“We haven’t changed many ingredients over the years unless it’s an improvement over the original,” Gary says.
that doesn’t mean the Gottenbusches are resistant to change. Six of
their 13 shops now have in-store delis. They also recently invested in
an automatic pretzel-twisting machine to make products ranging from a
soft pretzel that can be used as a sandwich bun to a huge version that
Servatii fills with meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato as an alternative
to the standard party tray of sandwiches.
Gary has also developed
a preservative-free baked soft pretzel that stays fresh in its package
for a year. The snack, marketed under the Pretzel Haus name, is in five
of the top 10 movie theater chains. And last year the brothers opened
Pizzelii Brick Oven Pizza, a 140-seat pizzeria in the Cincinnati suburb
of Mariemont that uses sauces and mozzarella made on the premises.
“They’re just hobbies, things that we enjoy,” Gary says of the enterprises. “But they’re extensions of what we do.”
at the main baking facility, the white-uniformed second shift has
arrived. The smell of cake doughnuts frying mingles with the scent of
caraway seed crusting the tops of salty rye bread.
day, they make cakes and cookies — they’re not as time-sensitive,” Gary
explains. “But all of the doughnuts and the breads and the Danish have
to be baked at night to get to the stores so they’re fresh in the
He stops to watch the pretzel-twisting machine
repeatedly transform lengths of dough into what is becoming an iconic
Servatii staple. Even some of the doughnuts are now made in a pretzel
“My father told me when I started in the bakery business,
‘If you do exactly what I did, you’re not going to be around. You have
to do things differently,’ ” Gary says. “That’s what we’re doing. It
makes him crazy because things change. But we don’t change the basics.”
Servatii's Butter Cookies
Gottenbusch says Servatii Pastry Shop’s recipe for its ever-popular
butter cookie is actually quite simple. The same goes for the
boiled-butter icing that tops it. The cookie dough can be prepared and
refrigerated as indicated in the recipe or placed directly in a piping
bag with a star tip and deposited in half-dollar-size swirls at 1/2-inch
intervals on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Simply follow the same
For the butter Cookies
8 ounces unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk
2 cups flour
oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Beat
butter, sugar, salt and vanilla until creamed (smooth). Mix in egg yolk,
scraping bowl at least once. Add flour and mix lightly, until just
incorporated. Scrape cookie dough onto a lightly floured board. Roll it
onto a sheet of plastic food wrap, and then roll it into a log about the
diameter of a half-dollar coin. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
Remove dough from the refrigerator. Cut cookie-dough roll into slices
about 1/8-inch thick. Place slices on baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart.
Bake 16 to 18 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Makes
approximately 2 dozen.
For the boiled-butter Icing
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a medium saucepan, mix milk and flour and simmer on low heat until thick. Remove from heat and cool in refrigerator.
shortening, butter, sugar and vanilla until creamy. Add milk-and-flour
mixture and mix until smooth. Makes approximately 4 cups.