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Vision 2030: Keeping things in the family

Some businesses in new age keep things old school

Time kind of stops when you walk into Folsom’s Bakery in Rock Falls.

It could be the 1940s, back when now-owner Jim Helle’s grandfather first started his own bakery in Sterling, or it could be March 2014. Either way, the recipe for that cinnamon roll you’re staring at – and its icing – has never changed.

And that’s the way Helle likes things. Simple. Old-school. Family-oriented.

Times change and technology advances, but conveyor belts and premade icing have no place in Folsom’s Bakery.

Helle generally gets to his shop about 2:30 in the morning and stays until it closes. But even when he’s not in the physical building, he’s working on something for the business.

Recently he struck up a contract to get his 3-ounce chocolate chip cookies into vending machines, and his Dixon storefront opened not too long ago.

Helle’s No. 1 priority, though, is family.

You can feel that when you’re talking to him, when you’re taking a bite of a thumbprint cookie. There’s something to it that’s different from anything you can buy in any grocery store.

“I want to try to keep it as old school as possible,” he said. “And if you look at some of the coffee cakes – our icing is our traditional family recipe that we’ve done for years.

“I’m not changing anything. You don’t fix something that’s not broken.”

Family first – whether it’s using his grandfather’s recipes, making sure the business stays in the family, or surprising his 22-year-old son in Quincy with a handmade cake for his wedding. For Helle, family is important.

It’s much the same at Air Play Sports and Espresso in Sterling.

Since the folks at Air Play don’t have the family history Jim Helle’s shop does, they have to create that same homey feeling. But the father and son who own it, Tim and Rich McNinch, know what it takes – or, at least, what feels like home to them – and use that in their shop.

It’s in the handcrafted window decorations; in the fact that if you say a coffee is “for here,” it’s served in a ceramic mug; in that on most days, you can find one of the two serving coffee, or sitting in a chair, using a laptop.

Air Play sold its first cup of coffee on Nov. 27, 2010, at 1:52 p.m., and since then, the menu has only grown.

Like Folsom’s, Air Play, too, bakes, though not to the extent that Helle does.

When Rich was young, he remembers, his father used to bake a lot – cookies and bread. Tim decided to bring that into the shop because, in his words, it goes well with coffee.

And like at Folsom’s, there’s a personal quality to Air Play’s baking. All items are made from scratch, the eggs brought in from a friend’s backyard. The icing, too, is made fresh two or three times a day, depending on the baking schedule.

“There’s just something about it; it’s the same feeling you get from drinking your coffee out of a ceramic mug,” Tim said. “It’s the little things that are important. When you tell somebody you make everything from scratch, they say, ‘What do you mean? You thaw it out and bake it?’ Well, no. We use whole butter and farm eggs and sugar and flour. Everything is done from scratch.

“When you come in from a cold day, and you get a big old ceramic mug, you can wrap your hands around it and feel the heat. Maybe it feels like you’re back at Grandma’s house when you were a kid. I don’t know what it feels like; it feels different to everybody, but for whatever the reason, they latch on to those little things.”

It’s all part of that personal approach to doing business that makes storefronts like the McNinches’ and Helles’ flourish in small towns. There’s a sense of ownership that comes along with it. Tim touched on that.

“You go to a place often enough, whether it’s here or Sloppy Gene’s,” he said. “I go next door [to the Precinct] for the soups. If they quit making soups, it’d be like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ So the small businesses that put it all on the line, they’re the ones that create that feel, that feeling like this is partly yours.”

Part of that feeling, just like in Folsom’s, stems from the fact that it is a family business. When businesses place that importance on the personal, they create a nostalgia that the high-tech, high-efficiency alternatives can’t compete with.

That’s not to say they don’t use technology at all, but their technology, at least at Air Play, is done to keep things running smoothly. It’s hard to have a business in the 21st century without implementing the latest software.

“The technology stuff is all behind the scenes,” Tim said. “It just makes stuff run smoother, the ordering, accounting. It makes it all look easy, makes it look painless”

Vision 2030 on Tuesday

Tuesday's edition will include a 52-page special section, "Vision 2030," that will examine what the Sauk Valley might look like in 2030. We will look at issues including employment, the workforce, education, infrastructure, housing, religion and health care.

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