The Scent of the Past
Oct 23, 2017 12:45PM
Tradition is in the air at Roy’s Bakery in Williamsport, and it’s so strong you can smell it. “The smell is mentioned every single day,” says Jenne Johnson, who has worked at the bakery for a year. “You can’t duplicate it.” She says sometimes families will come in to the 524 Washington Boulevard business just for a tour. They are often parents with children who used to come in as kids with their own parents. They look at the cookies and cakes in the cases and then comment on the smell. “Smelling it is nostalgia for them,” she says.
“The tradition is so strong here,” says Jenne. “The sugar cookies—the kids take them to school for treats. Parents take the cookies to school for the kids as their parents did for them.” And though Jenne is one of Roy’s newer faces, she has learned much about the bakery’s family history and is happy to share it. Roy’s has served old-fashioned bakery treats to area residents for sixty-nine years and continues to draw in new business. Roy Berninger of Williamsport opened the bakery in 1948 at a location in the Newberry section of Williamsport. The bakery then moved to a few different locations before opening in the 1980s at its present Washington Boulevard home. Roy created the dough recipes that have been passed down through several generations of the Berninger family. Though Roy passed away several years ago, as did his wife, Betty “Mo” Berninger, and son Gary “Bo” Berninger, the business continues to be run by family. Today, Roy’s daughter-in-law, Marian Berninger, and his grandson, Gary Berninger, Jr., co-own the business. Marian does the books and the cake decorating. Gary comes in at 2 a.m. each morning to begin making the favorites the customers love, goodies like the cakes and the sticky buns. No one but Gary knows the recipes, Jenne says. They are family secrets. “Things don’t change a lot,” she notes. “If there’s a way to continue the same way, they do.” Gary comes in that early to make the baked goods because, at Roy’s, everything is fresh and made to order and because “people get used to grocery store bakeries and having things instantly available.” Fresh cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and other baked goods are put in the store front daily and, with all that freshness, “no preservatives are used,” Jenne says.
One of Roy’s signature items is the cutout sugar cookies, the shapes of which change according to the season or holiday. This time of year the cookies reflect the images of fall, with colorful leaf shapes and pumpkins. Soon the theme will be Christmas; other holidays and shapes will follow—Valentine’s Day hearts, Easter bunnies, and American-themed cookies for the Fourth of July. Local businesses often get in on the fun. Jenne says a local dentist once called and asked for tooth-shaped cookies. She made syringe-shaped cookies for a medical office, using the lipstick-shaped cookie cutter. “Sometimes you have to look at the cutouts and be creative,” she says. Sticky buns are another one of Roy’s most popular creations, and they sell out quickly. If you don’t get there early in the morning, you won’t find them on the rack. Raisin filled cookies are also in great demand. “You can’t get them [like this] anywhere else except in Pennsylvania,” Jenne comments.
The busiest time of the year is coming up—Christmas, of course. Once again tradition plays a role, as it is the custom for many folks in the area to order their holiday cookies from Roy’s. And they order a lot of cookies! “In half an hour, we sold 200 dozen cookies,” Jenne recalls. She says Gary starts coming in at eleven o’clock the night before to keep up with the rush. Other especially busy holidays are Easter and Mother’s Day; for some reason, coconut cakes seem particularly popular for those times, Jenne says. The custom cakes are another delectable treat for which Roy’s is known. Generations of families have topped off a birthday or other celebration with a cake from Roy’s. “People have come here their whole lives,” Jenne says. “There’s a long-standing tradition.”
Roy’s still sees many elderly customers who have lived in Williamsport’s East End most of their lives. That section of the town still has a neighborhood feel, as a number of businesses such as Tony’s Deli and the old Joey’s Place (now 505 Boulevard Brews) have been there for years. Many folks do their errands along Washington Boulevard and go to the deli and bakery on those same errand runs, says Jenne. These East End locals have kept the tradition alive by bringing their children and grandchildren along to Roy’s. The business “truly is part of the neighborhood,” says Jenne. But, there are still some people who live in the Williamsport area who have never been in Roy’s before and will stop in out of curiosity. “They will tell me that they have lived here all their lives and have driven by but never stopped in. Once people buy the baked goods, they are hooked.”
The bakery also gets business from those who grew up in Williamsport and have since moved away. The comment from many of these returning locals is that “you can’t find old-fashioned bakeries anymore.” So they stop in at Roy’s to stock up on baked goods to take back home with them. “It’s that constant consistency of tradition,” that keeps customers coming back, says Jenne. “We offer something that is not offered anywhere else...it makes people happy.”