When bakery owner Bill Hanisch heard traditional high school graduation ceremonies would be canceled this year, he figured he could help sweeten the day for the disappointed teens.

He made a free personalized cake for each of the 220 graduating senior at his alma mater, Red Wing High School in Red Wing, Minn., about an hour southeast of Minneapolis.

As soon as the owner of Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop posted his intentions on Facebook, he was surprised at the response. Business owners, school administrators and parents in surrounding towns like Cannon Falls, Minn., and Plum City, Wis., reached out asking if they could send him donations to make cakes for graduating seniors at their schools.

Now, he has 800 orders to fill — one cake for every senior graduating in a dozen small towns along the upper Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Bill Hanisch of Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop initially planned to only made gift cakes for only 220 seniors at his alma mater in Red Wing, Minn. (Bill Hanisch)

“It’s a crazy idea, but it’s really taken off and we’re all loving it,” said Hanisch, 40, who is using the donations he has received, a total of about $10,000, for labor and ingredients only.

The ovens at his downtown bakery are going full-time, and his ex-wife, Robin Hanisch, an ace cake decorator who works at the shop, has helped to answer the call to complete 800 graduation cakes by June 4.

“It’s so disappointing to these kids that they can’t all get together with their friends and graduate in the same way the rest of us did,” Bill Hanisch said. “To me, a cake is one of those things that symbolizes the graduation experience. Most of us had one.”

Hanisch has already delivered about 400 cakes to six high schools. Students pick out their choice of flavors in advance (vanilla, chocolate or a mixture of both), then the cakes are decorated in their school’s colors and inscribed with their names, a mini diploma and “Congrats.”

With local farmers and businesses hurting, “there are people who might not be able to afford a graduation cake right now,” Hanisch said.

Principals and teachers arrange for seniors to pick up their cakes with the caps and gowns they ordered months ago but now have to be worn at home during virtual ceremonies.

Hanisch arrives at his shop — the only bakery in Red Wing — each morning by 2 a.m. to coordinate the day’s baking of dozens of two-layer, 7-inch cakes. Each cake costs him about $28 to make.

“It’s not a huge cake — but it’s something simple and sweet that they can have all to themselves, or they can have dinner with their family and they can all enjoy a nice slice of cake afterwards,” he said.

“These cakes are a way to let the kids know that we're proud they made it through 12 years of school,” he added. “Even though they can't all graduate together, they deserve to be recognized. High school graduation is a big deal."

Hanisch, who mopped floors and rang up sales as a teenager in the bakery (then named Braschler’s), has fond memories of the cake his co-workers made for him when he graduated from Red Wing High School in 1998.

“They gave me a sponge cake, and I do mean that literally,” he said. “They found a giant sponge and decorated it with characters from the South Park cartoon because I lived on South Park Street and loved that show."

After he discovered he'd been pranked, his friends brought out an authentic graduation cake with his name on it, decorated in Red Wing's purple and white school colors.

Hanisch enjoyed his first bakery job so much that he went on to earn a degree in baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., in 2000, before returning to Red Wing to tie on his apron again and bake cookies, cakes and the bakery’s signature Swedish Limpa rye bread — a semisweet loaf made with orange peel and ground fennel.

He bought the bakery from the previous owners, Bob and Nancy Braschler, in 2007 and now has more than 30 employees, including Robin and their two sons, ages 12 and 15. Thanks to all the graduation cake orders, he’s been able to keep 21 full-time employees on the payroll, he said, and the bakery has sold takeout orders as an essential business in the community since the start of the pandemic.

The bakery sits in the middle of Third Street in downtown Red Wing, and Hanisch — also known as “bunman” — said he sees the it as the heart of the city. Red Wing, population 16,414, is also home to the town’s most famous employer, Red Wing Shoes.

Hanisch’s efforts have led others in Red Wing to chip in for the 2020 graduates, said Tracy Hardyman, 50, whose son, Jacob, received a cake from Hanisch.

As a volunteer with Red Wing’s nonprofit Downtown Main Street group, Hardyman said she knew that closing small businesses in the town, even temporarily, would be devastating.

“But then the ‘bunman’ stepped up and became our community bright spot with his free decorated cakes,” she said. “The entire community then kicked in with donations for the seniors.”

Red Wing businesses began decorating their windows with congratulations signs, said Hardyman, and flags popped up downtown with all of the graduates’ senior portraits. A local restaurant gave away pizzas to graduates, and the town hardware store had purple mugs engraved at no cost for each student.

“It’s been amazing to see everyone step up and help out — I feel fortunate to live in this community,” said Hardyman. “The bunman really started it all.”

Many of this year's graduates started coming to his bakery for treats in grade school, said Hanisch, and more than a few have worked a mop or ran the cash register like he used to. “It's been fun to watch them grow up,” he said.

Among those who are graduating this year is Mya Benway, 17, who worked at the bakery for a year while attending Red Wing High School.

“It’s been really hard to be away from the friends I went to school with for 12 years,” she said. “It’s just such a super nice thing for him to bake so many cakes for us.”

Hanisch said the spring of 2020 will forever be etched in his memory not only as the time of the pandemic, but also as the time of 800 gift cakes with mini diplomas.

“These kids are losing some priceless memories because of the pandemic, so I’m glad that I can help them create a new kind of memory,” he said.

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