36 years, Diekens retire,
sell Madison bakery
(May 2001) Madison, In To many
in Madison, when you talk donuts, you talk Diekens donuts.
& John Dieken
German-born immigrant John Dieken made a
career out of perfecting the art of baking cakes, pastries,
breads and cookies, with donuts as his trademark item.
Diekens Bakery, located in the Clifty Plaza Shopping Center
on Clifty Drive, has served thousands of customers since
it opened April 1, 1965, one of the last businesses to
locate in the newly built center at the time. Though rarely
seen by customers who line up in the mornings to get their
sugar fix, Dieken is the reason for their devotion.
The certified Master Baker has overcome many challenges
to reach his dream since arriving from his native Oldenberg,
Germany, in 1955 as a 19-year-old, having just graduated
from his three-year bakers apprenticeship.
Now after 46 years in this country, much of it spent establishing
his own business in Madison, Dieken and his wife, Frances,
are retiring. On April 28, Dieken officially turned over
his bakery to the new owners, two local women who asked
not to be named. Dieken has agreed to work 150 more hours
around the holidays this year and help out in the transition
Otherwise, the 64-year-old reluctant retiree and work-aholic
plans to devote his time to gardening, travel and his
family, which includes three children and four grandchildren.
He and Frances, 62, plan a monthlong trip to Austria in
Diekens story is a classic case of the American
dream. Times were hard in Germany, and Diekens mother
arranged for her 15-year-old son to work in a local bakery.
He spent three years working without pay and only room
and board to earn his apprenticeship.
I started at 4 a.m. until we were done, six days
a week, he said. But I had a good boss and
learned a lot from him. Otherwise, Diekens
only formal education was nine years of elementary school.
When Frank Kramer, a German wholesale baker in Sunman,
Ind., agreed to sponsor Diekens trip to America,
Dieken left, much to the dismay of his parents. My
mother was especially upset that I was leaving. To her,
it was like burying somebody alive.
Besides his parents, Dieken left behind four brothers
and three sisters. When he arrived on Aug. 16, 1955, he
was provided room and board and $25 a week, all but $5
he used to repay his boss for the airfare to America.
Dieken spoke no English when he arrived in Sunman. He
worked for three years there. In 1958, he took a job in
a Cincinnati bakery, where he stayed until 1961. In 1957,
he met his future wife at a Halloween party. The two wed
in 1959 and had their first of three children in 1961.
Then it was on to Grand Rapids, Mich, where he worked
in a pie shop. I developed a cinnamon pecan coffee
cake while I was there that I still make today,
Diekens next stop was Middletown, Ohio, for a short
time and then on to Rushville, Ind.
In 1965, Clifty Plaza Shopping Center developer Bud Williams
was trying to recruit businesses to rent the last few
vacant shops in his new center. He was negotiating a deal
for a bakery owner in Louisville to open a location in
the center if Williams could find someone to manage it.
Williams placed an ad in the Indianapolis Star, and Dieken
responded. But by the time Williams got Dieken down to
Madison to discuss the job, the deal with the Louisville
bakery fell through.
I asked John if he would like to operate his own
bakery there, recalled Williams, 82.
Dieken recalled his answer to be, Thats impossible,
considering he had only $2,000 and no collateral to his
Williams assured him it was possible and took Dieken to
see Vince Shingleton (now deceased) at a local bank to
obtain a $10,000 loan. We got the money on March
18, 1965 I remember because it was my wifes
birthday, Dieken said.
Dieken used the money to purchase used bakery equipment.
Meanwhile at home, the Diekens were flat broke, with no
money to buy food for the faamily. Frances cried
every day for a week, Dieken recalled.
He started baking donuts and pastries to test his equipment
and feed his family. People started lining up at the counter,
with Williams and his wife, Vina, there to take orders.
We took in $165 that first day and we werent
even officially opened, Dieken said. My wife
took the money and immediately went grocery shopping.
That was the best $165 I ever made.
As for Williams, Dieken said, I owe a lot to that
Since then, the Diekens have outlasted four other bakeries
of the time, while establishing a reputation as Madisons
hometown bakery. In July 1987, Dieken became the first
Master Baker in Indiana after completing the tests administered
by the Retail Bakers Association.
From 1972 to 1994, the Diekens operated a second location
at what is now Cafe Camilles on Madisons Main
Street. They sold both retail and wholesale in those early
years, providing donuts to more than 35 area stores. They
eventually gave up the wholesale business to focus on
Today, in addition to a variety of specialty items, Diekens
Bakery produces 4,000 donuts a day, with Dieken and two
other employees German-born Horst Moehlmann, 54,
and Madison native Charlie Augustine, 35. They start at
11 p.m. the previous night and work until 4 a.m. the following
morning. Cookies, cakes and other items are made during
the day by baker Sheri Seel, 35. Dieken himself makes
French-style eclairs, creme puffs, salt-rising bread,
cheese cakes and German style Christmas stollen. His cookie
dough recipe is his grandmothers.
Whatever is not sold at the end of the day is donated
to such places as the Salvation Army, Girl Scouts and
Dieken said 100,000 people come through the door each
year, with about 13,000 during peak months.
So far, all of Diekens 19 employees and bakers have
agreed to stay on under the new ownership. They have also
bought the Diekens name and plan to keep everything the
same. Dieken has begun training Seel to make some of the
specialty items that only he has made. A fourth baker
also will be added to the staff by the new management.
The staffs loyalty to Dieken over the years resulted
from good pay and treatment, according to the bakers.
Mr. Dieken has taught me a lot, not only baking,
but hes like my dad, said Seel. We knew
it was only a matter of time before he retired, but I
never thought I would be here when he did.
Dieken said retirement wasnt his idea. I still
like it; Im not tired of it.
Frances admits it was her idea for the couple to slow
down. Weve spent a lot of time in here,
she said, glacing around the back room. But weve
got grand kids, and wed like to be a part of their
lives. Theres things weve put on hold because
the bakery always came first.
She said her husband has worked tirelessly to achieve
his dream, and she was always willing to help him.
My mom worked hard, too, and shes always been
in the background, said their 37-year-old daughter,
Gina Johann. Im really proud of them. My dad
not only managed to fulfill his American dream, but with
moms help, they conquered it.
She said her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic,
how to treat others and the spirit that you can
Vina Williams said the Diekens have made several anniversary
and birthday cakes for them over the years and calls them
lovely people, and so down to Earth. They both work
so hard for everything, and they deserve it.
Bud Williams said the Diekens were always tied together
and still are. Im glad to be associated with them.
After spending countless hours as teenagers working in
the bakery, neither Gina nor her two brothers chose to
follow in their parents footsteps. Gina is a registered
nurse at Nortons Hospital in Louisville. Johann,
40, works in the computer field. David, 39, works for
American Airlines in Dallas.
Gina often jokes that since local policemen frequently
stopped in the bakery in the mornings, she had to be careful
what she did as a teenager the night before.
She described her father as a hard worker who terrified
her as a youngster. But when I grew up, I realized
that was all a fake, and hes really a big teddy
In addition to selling his bakery, the new owners also
bought the rights to continue using Diekens name.
He considers it an honor. It goes back to pride,
he said. You like to see the family name out there
as long as they keep up a good reputation.
Despite his boss retirement, Moehlmann, who also
emigrated from Oldenberg, doesnt believe hes
seen the last John Dieken.
Well just call him up and tell him were
doing something wrong, and hell be right over here
to help us.