Jordana Downer doesn’t know exactly what her job title is at Bennison’s Bakery, as her responsibilities include baking, decorating cakes and managing finances. The 33-year-old’s best guess? “Owner’s assistant” — the owner being her father, Jory. In a difficult year, the bakery her grandfather bought in 1967 from founder Larry Bennison is thriving. Downer talks about being part of a family business, operating during a pandemic and balancing her already full schedule with being a new mother.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re in the third generation of a family of bakers. What was your childhood like?
All of our birthday cakes came from [Bennison’s]. And my dad always smells like cookies. I'm not kidding, under all circumstances. It doesn’t matter if he showers — he literally always smells like cookies. It’s always been so much of our lives. My dad always had to work on holidays and weekends. It's all the time.
When did you figure out that you wanted to be part of Bennison’s?
I wanted to go to culinary school out of high school, but my siblings and I are the first generation in our family to go to college, so my parents really wanted me to go to college. So I went to pastry school, [but only] after I graduated from a four-year university. I went to the French Pastry School [in Chicago] for a six-month program, and then I was an intern at the school, so I was there for a year. [For decorating cakes,] my dad and my grandpa [are] the ones that I learned that skill from. I've always been into art and drawing and stuff. Before I became a cake decorator, I did drawing and painting at home, so that came naturally.
How did running the bakery and customer patterns change during the pandemic?
Right when it started, for those first couple of weeks, we were very slow. Then, we started to do GrubHub, and we started doing a lot of delivery and day-of ordering. It's kind of evened out now. We're basically as busy as we were before, but there was a time [about two months into the pandemic when we did free delivery] when we were actually busier. I think people just needed comfort food, so we were doing a lot of GrubHub orders in the morning and cake orders for family dinners and stuff. Now we can only allow five people in the bakery at a time, so in the winter it got very challenging [having people waiting in the cold]. We started doing curbside pickup to avoid lines in the store. We'll probably keep doing [GrubHub and delivery] because, honestly, we've gained some customers that I don't think shopped at Bennison’s before.
2020 was a bad year for many reasons, but you also had some joy: You had your son, Jory (named after your father), in June. What was it like becoming a mom and also trying to help run this business during a pandemic?
It's been crazy. But to me, [with my family] owning a bakery, there's not a lot of work-life balance to begin with. I mean, I don't have wild Friday nights anyways. But having a baby has changed my life. It has been the most wonderful thing I've ever done. It was very challenging. And having a baby in a hospital during a pandemic was also very interesting — fortunately, I was able to have my husband with me. A couple weeks before, you weren't allowed to have a guest with you. My husband's also a chef [at Farmhouse Chicago], so he's not used to a regular 9-to-5 life either.
Bennison’s goes all out for the holidays, from Baileys-flavored macarons for St. Patrick's Day to cakes decorated like turkeys for Thanksgiving. Do you have a favorite holiday at the bakery?
Christmas. We do a lot of really cute decorated Christmas items, and there's just something very nostalgic. It's cold outside, and it’s warm in the bakery. Everything smells like gingerbread. It's crazy, and it's so busy, but it definitely is the cutest time.
Finally, you do so much — decorating cakes, making pastries and everything in between. What’s the most difficult thing to make?
French macarons. I actually make all the macarons too. They’re pretty tricky. You’ve got to get the recipe just right. I’ve just made them for so long now that it’s pretty easy, but it's a difficult process.