Like going back in time: Mount Prospect's Central Continental Bakery turns 100
As soon as you open the door Central Continental Bakery in downtown Mount Prospect, even before you have a chance to fasten your eyes on the enticing array of cakes, cookies and pastries, you are wrapped in a seductive aroma.
Those sights and smells have been winning over customers, and bringing them back time and again, for 100 years now.
The family-owned bakery at 101 S. Main St. recently celebrated its 100th year in business, 43 of them in Mount Prospect. It has prevailed through economic challenges, a building damaged by fire and the COVID pandemic, and it now employs a fourth generation of family workers.
One important reason for its success is baked in the DNA of its owners, the Czerniak family, beginning with patriarch Teofil Czerniak. The Polish immigrant opened Central Continental's predecessor, Marie's Pastry Shop at 51st Street and Hermitage Avenue in Chicago in 1922.
The torch was passed to Teofil's sons, Ted and Bob, who helmed the business from 1948 to 1962.
Ted's sons, Roger and Robert, later joined by brother Randy, opened the Mount Prospect bakery in 1979.
The first location was at 22 N. Main St. in Central Plaza, now the location of an upscale apartment building. After almost moving to a larger space in Park Ridge, the bakery settled into its present location, once occupied Meeske's Market.
As the bakery cooks its way into another century, the product has remained much the same as it was when Teofil set up shop.
"We are sticking with the way he made things and the recipes he had," Robert Czerniak said. "The recipes may change a little bit, with the type of flours we use and certain things, but it's basically the same. And we stuck with it. That's why the people come to us. It's like maybe going back a little in time."
For customers, it's a delicious trip down memory lane.
"We make it like grandma used to make it," said Stacey Brau, the store's manager for 27 years.
"We're very big on our coffee cakes," Czerniak said. "Our coffee cakes are made the way they made them years ago."
The product is made on site, using fresh ingredients with no preservatives.
"We go through 50-pound blocks of butter like nobody's business. You don't find places that use real butter anymore," Brau said.
The bakery has a main kitchen area, another room for decorating and a mixing area.
While popular year-round, the bakery draws huge crowds for its annual Paczki Fest, a six-day event held just before Lent. Lines of customer have been known to go down the block, and the event has even attracted television crews. They sell about 50,000 paczkis, with about 40 varieties, during the week.
For Fat Tuesday, the store stays open all night because of the demand.
"I've been here for 27 of them, and it gets bigger and bigger," Brau said. "And people come from all over. And they'll wait for hours. And they'll make friends with each other and share their stories."
Over the past decade, the bakery has faced two major challenges.
The first came in February 2014, when fire gutted the neighboring Sakura Japanese Restaurant. The bakery building survived without structural harm, but damage to a corner of the building forced a move to a temporary location on Prospect Avenue for about seven months.
But the relocation, the bakery spent time operating out of village hall.
The pandemic proved an even more daunting challenge.
"We were open through it, which really helped us keep our employees working," Czerniak said.
Even though business dropped and employee hours had to be cut, "We all stuck together and never laid anybody off," he added.
Today, the business is as robust as ever, with regular customers like Mary Truschke of Rolling Meadows.
"My husband likes the German apple strudel slice," she said, adding she comes for the cookies, doughnuts and wide variety of items.
"I like the people first of all. The people are so kind," customer Joann Smith of Mount Prospect said.
One of those people is Smith's granddaughter, Rhianna Tandy. The 15-year-old Prospect High School student works at the bakery and also decorated the store's window.
As downtown Mount Prospect sprouts new high-rises and other development, Central Continental Bakery keeps plugging along, with Teofil's great-grandchildren now working in the business and, perhaps, a fifth generation ready to take over.
"We're going to keep on baking right here in downtown Mount Prospect," Czerniak said.