Local Producer Spotlight: Pekara Bakery

Pekara Bakery has become well known in C-U for its excellent European-style baked goods. Common Ground Food Co-op is proud to carry a selection of their artisanal breads and pastries, which are baked each morning and delivered fresh daily, Monday through Saturday. Recently, we’ve begun to use Pekara bread for our housemade sandwiches and we are loving the results!

Pekara’s founder and owner is Ruzica Cuk, called Seka by her friends. Originally from Serbia, moved to Illinois in 1993 with her husband Dragan and daughter Mila. After tasting American  bread, she knew she wanted to open a bakery that offered traditional European style breads made from scratch, with no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Amazingly, Seka’s background is in economics and administration, not baking. However, she is passionate about good bread. “Everybody in Serbia, they eat a lot of bread. Every little town, they have a bakery. When I started Pekara, I knew nothing about baking. But I always wanted to have my own business. I love bread, so I learned.”  She opened Pekara’s first Bakery and Bistro location in Downtown Champaign in 2005, and soon expanded to an off-site Bakehouse to be able to serve more wholesale customers. They currently produce around 2,000 loaves of bread per week, which are delivered to 50 businesses and farmers markets, including locations in St. Louis, Peoria and Bloomington, IL. The Co-op is their largest customer.

In November, several of your Co-op’s staff got the rare opportunity to tour Pekara’s Bakehouse. The building was originally a Masonic Lodge, but has been Pekara’s production facility since 2008. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Seka and the bakehouse manager, Elizabeth. We were then escorted to the office for our meeting, but the real attraction was down the hall: the actual bakery space, from which the wafting aroma of warm bread and pastries suggested all manner of delicious things within.

After our meeting we donned hairnets and ventured into the huge workspace. Seka showed us vats of foccacia dough and explained the 48 hour process required for traditional, yeast-leavened breads. The long rising and resting time is key to creating their exceptional flavor and texture- it’s time-consuming, but worth it. Seka says the bread is “like babies- it must be cared for all the time.” At one of the work tables, staff were busy shaping baguettes: each piece of soft dough is rolled out by hand, folded into thirds, and rolled again before being placed on canvas-covered boards to rise. Behind them is a stand mixer with a basin roughly the size of a jacuzzi. Against the far wall, huge ovens radiate warmth . In the next room, staff were prepping for Saturday morning- extra pastries for the Market at the Square, and desserts for the Bistro. Seka opened  a nearby fridge revealing trays of tiramisu and colorful French macaroons.

In addition to bread and pastries, the Bistro serves quiches, soups, salads, and sandwiches. Pekara also has an extensive menu of specialty and wedding cakes that can be ordered. Check out their website and see their complete menu and cake options here.

Pekara employs a staff of 20 that work around the clock mixing, “babysitting,” and baking the bread. Some staff have moved here especially to work with Seka at a traditional bakery. They are committed to using the best ingredients and working with other community organizations; much of their day-old bread is donated to the Times Center in Champaign, and they sometimes share refrigerator space with their neighbor Prosperity Gardens, a local urban farm. Pekara is excited to expand their partnership with CGFC and we’re excited to offer sandwiches made with some of the best bread in CU.

(Pekara used organic and local ingredients whenever possible. They use King Arthur Bread Flour and whole Wheat Flour. King Arthur products are made from non-GMO wheat. The company is a worker owned co-op based in Norwich Vermont, and is certified B Corporation.)