But Klecko is also a writer. He’s been penning poems and stories for 20 years, many of them seeking to uplift others in the food business. Klecko’s most recent effort, however, is something different. It’s a personal, powerful collection of poems titled “Hitman-Baker-Casketmsker,” in which he grapples with his feelings on a variety of topics, including baseball, family and the fallout of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit last year that found nearly half of his Saint Agnes Baking Co. staff were unauthorized to work in the United States.
It’s the latter incident that has attracted headlines. The audit came just weeks before Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where Saint Agnes had the contract to supply hamburger and hot dog buns for the big game. But when ICE notified management that so many Saint Agnes employees did not have proper documentation, Klecko knew he would not be able to find fast replacements to fill the skilled positions. So he closed the bakery before the Super Bowl, a decision that upended countless families.
The new book, Klecko says, is “kind of a poke back at ICE. They’ve already beat me and I’ve lost. At the same time, in my industry, we have a saying that ‘evil won’t beat evil,’ but sometimes grace does.”
From his poem “Rally of Despair” in “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker”:
“Our purpose has been taken
“But not our dignity, I suggest we use it
“Before moving on
“Before plugging into a new normal
“The packing supervisor responded
“You can’t close the doors
“It’s our fault, we will work for free
“Until you find replacements
“I smiled and said no, not without you
“And the crew went back to work.”
I spoke to Klecko about his writing and ICE. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
What attracted you to writing?
There was a point in my career, gosh, 25 years ago, I just realized I was going to be a low-wage food service worker for the rest of my life if I didn’t come up with a plan. So I started marketing myself, and I had to figure out how to write. So I went to a food show and got a booth next to Mickey Carroll, one of the munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz.” I talked with him, and I wrote a column about it. It was one of the most nerve-racking days of my life.
When you speak, you sometimes use “Klecko” in the third-person, as if he’s someone other than you. How do you view this persona?
My Christian name is Dan McGleno, born to an Irishman. But when I first started baking, it was all second- and third-generation European bakers. I was at a bakery, and I wanted to get in with the Poles, Czechs and the Russians, who all baked together. They said they would never let a “mick” bake with them. About a week later, I went to my locker and I pulled out a uniform. I said: “I got the wrong one. It says Klecko.” They said, “No, no, you’re finally one of us.” That was the name they gave me. I think, loosely, “klecko” means “to revere your masters.” It was kind of tongue in cheek, but I’ve kept it, because those are the people who have given me everything that I’ve learned. When I do demonstrations, it’s so much easier to be Klecko, because it’s nice to have a little bit of a buffer. People leave Dan McGleno alone, but Klecko, he’s an open target. That’s who is basically on call 95 percent of the time.
How do you differentiate between Klecko and Dan McGleno?
Klecko is hospitality, because his job is to be informative. His job is to entertain. But his job is also to feed people. You know, who is kidding whom? There’s something a little bit diva about being Madonna or being Bono or whatever. To be honest with you, if I’m gonna . . . work on a project, whether it’s a breadline or something artistic, I wanted to get as much opportunity from it as I can. And the one name always serves me better than the two names.
You told the Star Tribune that “baking saved me from being incarcerated.” What’s the story behind that?
I was on the wrong path. I went to three different schools. I was let go from every one. I wasn’t like an evil kid, but I wasn’t a conformist. I wanted to do things my own way. I preferred home ec to shop class. I just hung out and did baking. I only did what I wanted to do, and it didn’t bode well. But, you know, I got involved in some things about age 17 or 18, so I basically had to spend six or seven months, in the middle of winter, hitchhiking around the country, not sure if I could come back home. Then things kind of dissolved, and I was able to come back and continue baking. And it was at that point where I realized that maybe I should take a new direction.
I’d be a terrible reporter if I let you get away with a phrase like “got involved in some things.” What did you get involved in?
I’m not saying that I actually did anything. I’m just saying that there was an incident in our neighborhood where there was a house that was burgled by a group of kids, and a lot of valuable things disappeared. This was 1980, and back then, they were putting everybody into drug treatment, and that’s what everyone was afraid of. Because in drug treatment, they didn’t let you out unless you stopped using drugs, and they kept you longer. I just wanted to make sure that if the cops were looking for me that I’d be gone for a while.
After penning mostly positive stories, what compelled you to write about the ICE incident and your staff?
When you work with people for decades, and something like this hits you, I mean, we were all in shock. But in my position, everybody knows Klecko. In some ways, that’s a blessing, and in other ways, it’s a curse. But it’s also a responsibility. In St. Paul, every place of business has Mexicans working in it, and they’re providing luxury and convenience to white people that have a nice economy, and they really don’t realize it. So when something like this happens, everybody was concerned about what was going to happen to me. But very few people cared about the crew.
When you first got the ICE audit, did you immediately know it was bad news?
I knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. We just didn’t know how many people might fail, and it turned out that 23 of a staff of around 50 came up not clean. Most of those people were supervisors, and many of them had worked for me for a couple of decades. So, I mean, when we found that out, we knew we were doomed.
You wrote a poem titled “Media Jackals,” which depicts what some news outlets wrote about the incident: “They compromised our dignity for headlines/ Insinuating we were cowards/ Knowing we were helpless/ And in no position to defend ourselves.” How did they call you cowards?
They said the staff were cowards because they fled because they were fearful of ICE. Of course, they were terrified of ICE, but they didn’t leave. That was like the lowest blow. We had arguably the greatest bread crew in the history of Minnesota, and ICE just scattered it. And all these people are still here, and they’re all working at different places. But some of them are working in paint stores and some are working at carwashes, when we could be producing the greatest bread that our city could have.
What kind of impact do you think these audits have in your industry?
No first-world nation serves itself. It’s a ridiculous thing to even think about. So the more ICE makes this difficult on these people, there’s going to be a point where they just won’t come anymore to the United States. You know, our population is increasing. Our needs are increasing. Our desire for luxury is always going to increase, but we’re not going to have people to help us with that. So the floor will fall out.
We can’t have cheap goods and services without low-cost labor.
You have to realize, when you’re going into your hotel room and that bed is made or when someone’s handing you a Big Mac, that there’s a person on the other side of that counter who is fearless. But they’re also frightened. They’re frightened that bad things are going to happen to them or their family, and they’re frightened every day. A lot of people want to blame the right wing for this, and they want to blame Trump. They want to blame the conservatives. You know, the Democrats aren’t much better. Basically, everyone’s making it very easy to just ignore these people and make sure that their fear continues.
Klecko speaks at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Potter’s House, 1658 Columbia Rd. NW. The discussion is free.
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