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Mrs. Backer’s: A sweet — and flowery — Salt Lake institution

Mrs. Backer’s Pastry Shop on South Temple has been a mainstay for Salt Lake’s sweet tooth for 81 years

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Renee Backer places cakes in the display cabinet at Backer’s Pastry Shop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

One day, so the story goes, a honey bee found its way into Mrs. Backer’s Pastry Shop on South Temple.

Thinking it had hit unexpected pay dirt, the bee made a beeline, as it were, for one of Mrs. Backer’s famous cakes decorated by buttercream flowers, hovered for a second, then dove into the tube rose on top.

Of all the compliments Utah’s oldest family bakery has received — and there have been thousands over the years — from movie stars and governors and Jazz players and church leaders and more mothers of the bride than you could count — Marty Backer thinks that one might be the most flattering.

“It thought it could go straight down and get the nectar,” he says.

* * *

Bakeries come and bakeries go, but not this one. Mrs. Backer’s has sold the same pastries from the same location in the same city since 1941. It’s been at 434 E. South Temple for so long the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It couldn’t move if it wanted to.

At that, Mrs. Backer’s is a mere toddler compared to the family’s long relationship with baking. The Backers first opened a bakery in northwest Germany in the village of Dornum on or about the year 1200, some 800 years ago. The family surname — “backer” is “baker” in German — is believed to come from what they did for a living.

The source for the above anecdote is Marty’s grandfather, Gerhard Backer, who came to America with his wife Henrietta in 1924 and brought the family trade with him. As a conscript in the German army during World War I, Gerhard served behind the lines, baking bread to feed the troops. He returned to Dornum after the war, but runaway inflation caused him and Henrietta to emigrate to America, where Henrietta had two brothers to sponsor them.

Gerhard promptly opened the West High Bakery — located across from West High School. When his oldest son, Martin, came of age, he branched out and opened Mrs. Backer’s on South Temple in 1941 — the name is a tribute to Martin’s mother, who stepped in and set Gerhard straight when he hedged on loaning Martin the money he needed to get started.

Mrs. Backer’s has paid homage to her ever since.

Marty Backer, Martin’s son, is the third-generation owner of Mrs. Backer’s, along with his wife, Renee (who is also Mrs. Backer but not the Mrs. Backer). The fourth generation is waiting in the wings: Marty and Renee’s children, Stefanie and Wade, who run the bakery full time now that Marty and Renee are in their 70s and easing off a bit.

The secret to Mrs. Backer’s staying power? “Being different,” says Marty. “Anybody can make a cake, but the stuff we make, we hope, is better tasting and better looking and so forth.”

They make a spectacular meat pie that has been on the menu since Gerhard brought the recipe from the old country, and they sell a lot of cookies and french pastries, but more than anything, it’s their colorful flowers, made from a closely guarded buttercream icing recipe, that set them apart.

The flowers were there from the shop’s beginning, but it wasn’t until 1969 that the artistry really took off. Marty had just returned from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, freeing up his father to handcraft a number of custom metal decorating tubes so he could make ornate, lifelike flowers. Martin Backer constructed about 15 tubes in all, beginning with the rose and ending with the coup de grace — the daffodil.

“Because he needed that trumpet,” says Marty, “the daffodil makes a real statement.”

The timing was perfect, because just as supermarket bakeries were proliferating and running mom-and-pop stores out of business, Mrs. Backer’s had to start adding more employees.

They barely advertised, but word of mouth was more than sufficient. If you get Marty and Renee — who met when she got a job at Mrs. Backer’s to help pay for college — talking about people-you’ve-heard-of they’ve made deluxe cakes for, pull up a chair.

“Oh, we could drop names all over the place,” says Renee, as she and Marty start clicking them off: Roma Downey, Geena Davis, Stefanie Powers, Gary Herbert, Gail Miller, Karl Malone and a bunch of other Jazz players, Cal Rampton, Scott Anderson, Jeff Judkins, Kem Gardner, Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, Larry King.

Beginning with David O. McKay, for years they made a cake for every Latter-day Saint church president’s birthday.

The biggest one they’ve ever made was for a Greek wedding. The bride asked for a cake 6 feet high. It cost $700. In the 1970s.

The tubes Martin Backer fashioned back in 1969 are still used to make the deluxe flowers — and only by a Backer. After Martin retired, Marty did all the flowers. Now, Stefanie is the artist, with occasional help from her brother Wade.

This is partly because using the tubes is “a learned art,” and also for proprietary reasons. “When Dad developed those tubes he didn’t want everyone to know how it was done,” says Marty, “so we’ve kinda kept it in the family.”

And so it goes for the Backers. Eight hundred years of perpetual baking and counting. The old folks back in Dornum would be proud.