This Baker Made Cakes for Graduating Seniors During the Pandemic

Bill Hanisch, better known as the Bunman, wanted to help the high school seniors feel special.

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Posted in , Feb 26, 2021

Bill Hanisch in his bakery; photo courtesy Bill Hanisch

A flurry of flour, swirls of vanilla buttercream frosting, employees working around the clock, cake pans shipped overnight from the supplier. For six weeks during May and June 2020, Bill Hanisch of Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop in Red Wing, Minnesota, pulled out all the stops for high school seniors graduating during the pandemic.

“I wanted to make sure these kids had as memorable a graduation as mine was in 1998.”

When Covid-19 shut down schools in Red Wing last March, seniors missed major milestones such as prom. Bill realized they’d miss out on in-person graduation too. “Graduation is the culmination of watching these kids grow up through school and sports,” he says. “It’s big no matter what and even more important in smaller communities like Red Wing.”

What could a lone bakery owner—also known as the Bunman—do?

First he rang his ex-wife, Robyn Hanisch. “She’s our cake decorator,” says Bill. “I told her I wanted to give our seniors personalized layer cakes decorated in school colors to celebrate their graduation at home. She thought it was a great idea.”

With Robyn on board, Bill took to Facebook on Sunday, April 26, outlining his sweet plan to celebrate the approximately 200 seniors of Red Wing High School. There were likes and encouraging comments, but nothing out of the ordinary for a popular downtown spot. The bakery closed, as it always does, on Monday and Tuesday.

One of Bill's graduation cakes
       One of Bill's graduation cakes

By Tuesday night, however, Bill was getting phone calls. People wanted cakes for seniors at their schools. What about students in Lake City, in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, across the Mississippi? Bill wanted to be charitable but was worried about supplies. Could he afford to give away dozens more free cakes?

Like most restaurants, Hanisch Bakery was struggling during the pandemic, barely making ends meet. The coffee shop had to close, and just a fraction of the original 42 employees were working.

The local CBS news channel picked up Bill’s Facebook post on May 5, broadcasting his idea across the Twin Cities. “That’s when it took off,” he says. Requests started coming in by the dozens, then hundreds, like a cake rising out of control, bursting from the pan. Could Bill and his employees possibly cover all the requests in time for graduation?

Bill has always had a knack for baking, what he sees as “making something out of nothing.” Fired at 15 from his first job, as a golf cart attendant, he quickly landed a gig at the bakery in downtown Red Wing. Cutting his teeth on muffins, pastries, breads and cakes, he discovered that baking wasn’t just a way to make extra money. It was his calling.

“You go from absolutely nothing—ingredients in a bowl—to hundreds of different products,” he says. “It’s just awesome.”

His coworkers, some of whom would eventually become his employees, even made him a cake when he graduated from Red Wing High School. “It was a sponge cake,” says Bill. “Literally made out of stacked sponges.” (He got a real cake too.)

He studied baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. “It opened my eyes to a bigger world of baking industries,” Bill says. He decided to pursue work in the kitchens of Delta Line steamboats, cruising up and down the Mississippi. It would be a real culinary adventure. “I had my job application ready.”

Before he could hit Send, Bill got a call. Would he be interested in returning to Red Wing as the night baker? “I’d always wanted to own my own business,” he says. “Coming back to Red Wing put me on a path to do that.”

Seven years later, in 2007, Bill and Robyn bought the old Red Wing bakery, renaming it Hanisch Bakery.

The business thrived, and so did Bill’s reputation as a colorful community figure. In 2009, a DJ dubbed him Billy the Bunman. The name stuck. Bill commissioned a mascot costume—a caricature of himself with an enormous face—and started making appearances at local parades and festivals.

During one school’s Read Across America event, the Bunman gave away some 1,000 cookies in honor of Dr. Seuss each year. At Red Wing’s Christmas parade, he handed out 3,000 chocolate chip cookies. “Everyone in town knows me as the Bunman,” Bill says. “I have a car with personalized Bunman plates.”

Bill knows that kids don’t always see what’s special about their hometowns, which is part of why he wanted to bake cakes for the high school seniors. “I’m hoping that at their 10-year or even 25-year reunion, they’ll remember their graduation and think it was pretty special,” Bill says.

After fielding calls from parents and school administrators all over the area, Bill sat down to do the math. He usually sells cakes for $28 a pop to turn a profit but figured he could break even selling graduation cakes for $15.

“I sort of ask for spiritual help on a daily basis,” Bill says. “I’m a believer that when you do good things, good things come back to you.” He posted on Facebook that he would love to give cakes to graduating seniors in all the towns that had asked but couldn’t do it financially with the pandemic. What he could do, though, was offer cakes at cost.

To his surprise, donations rolled in alongside orders. Folks all over the United States—from Florida to California—wanted to pay for supplies and labor. Bill was featured on a local ABC channel, then Fox News. What began as an idea to celebrate the seniors of Red Wing quickly grew into a race to bake and deliver 1,200 cakes to 15 towns in two states during the six weeks before graduation.

The logistics were no cakewalk. What if one school ordered cakes in May, and a couple parents at another school ordered cakes for another area in early June? How many trips could his driver make per day? Bill called schools, trying to get a jump on individual requests. Everyone was thrilled—students, parents, administrators—and more orders materialized.

Hanisch Bakery got to work. Enough orders had come in that Bill was able to bring back furloughed employees to fulfill them. “Sometimes I forgot about a school, and we had to scramble,” he says. One morning, Robyn had to decorate 60 cakes for immediate transportation. “It baffles me how we did it all.”

On May 19, less than a month after Bill’s original Facebook post, Hanisch Bakery delivered its first round of cakes, to the happy grads at Kenyon-Wanamingo in Kenyon, Minnesota. Then May 20, another school delivery. May 22, two more schools. May 24, another school. After that, the daily deliveries didn’t stop until June 11, the end of graduation season.

Bill received videos from parents of high school seniors receiving the cakes, but nothing beat watching the reveal in person. “My favorite was a little town, Blooming Prairie, an hour and 15 minutes away,” he says. “Kids got to graduate in their family vehicles in a parade through the whole town. With fire trucks and everything!”

A Blooming Prairie alum who’d initially contacted Hanisch Bakery set up a photo booth in her yard for students to take pictures with their cakes. “A few times, I thought the cakes were going to slide right off their boards,” Bill says, laughing.

With the mad rush of graduation season finally over, Bill looked over the numbers to survey the damage. How much had it cost to deliver all those smiles? After adding up all the donations, Bill realized he’d broken exactly even at $15 a cake.

Bill and his band of merry Red Wing bakers never set out to earn a million dollars in cake sales. They’d just wanted to give some high school seniors a graduation to remember. That it kept Hanisch Bakery and its staff afloat through such hard times? The Bunman grins and says, “That’s the icing on the cake.”

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