Bakers Journal

Bakery profile: Amazing Anna Mae’s

February 15, 2023
By Colleen Cross

Thriving Millbank, Ont., bakery and restaurant preserves traditions, updates processes

Amanda Herrfort, general manager, grabs the sought-after buggy seat at Anna Mae’s restaurant. Photos: Bakers Journal

At Anna Mae’s Bakery and Restaurant you do not mess with success. But you might tweak your processes a little bit to serve your customers better and faster.

Just ask Amanda Herrfort, who is general manager of her family’s business.

The busy, friendly bakery, restaurant and gift shop is a hub for its community of Millbank, a village of about 600 in southwestern Ontario, and a draw from nearby Stratford, Waterloo and London.

In fact, people come from all over Ontario and beyond to sample the hospitality and homemade food at this charming spot in Mennonite country.

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The bakery has an interesting history. Anna Mae Wagler operated a baking business out of her home starting in 1978. Wagler opened a new location on Perth Line 72 in 1991. 

Amanda’s parents, Mel and Marlene Herrfort, bought the business and it’s been owned and operated by the Herrfort family since then. 

Marlene has held the reins since Mel died in 2009 and Amanda, having come up through the ranks, and with a business degree, is positioned to lead Anna Mae’s into the future.

Anna Mae’s specializes in homemade Mennonite cooking and baking and provides daily specials such as their popular build-your-own meal giving customers the choice of meat, potato, vegetable and dinner roll. 

The “broasted” (broiled and roasted) chicken is a highlight and popular item on their menu. Chicken is dusted in their seasoning mixture and deep fried in a pressure cooker to a crisp, golden brown. It’s based on a method developed by L.A.M. Phelan and marketed by the Broaster Company. 

Virtually no one leaves the place without trying a piece of homemade pie or treat from a list of more than 20 desserts baked daily.

The friendly manager started at Anna Mae’s in 2001 at age 14 as a dishwasher, then progressed to server, cashier, then supervisor, assistant manager and most recently general manager in 2019.

Working closely with Amanda is kitchen and bakery manager Sheila Bauman, who has been with Anna Mae’s for more than 15 years. Alyssa van der Linden, Amanda’s niece and granddaughter of the owners, is assistant manager.

To set the scene, the restaurant holds 51 tables, a counter, and seats 200. With all of those seats, the central buggy seat – a stationary, souped-up 19th-century buggy – is a sought-after spot.

In recent years they’ve added to the bakery, lobby and seating areas.

Anna Mae’s offers a five-week rotating meat schedule which they advertise two months ahead in the printed menus. This innovation makes life in the kitchen smoother while still providing guests with a choice of when and what they eat. 

They buy ingredients from an impressive list of local suppliers, including Orval Zehr of Millbank (fresh eggs), Connie “The Tomato Lady” in Exeter, Stemmler Meats in Heidelberg and Bryan Gerber of Brunner (strawberries).

General manager Amanda Herrfort and kitchen and bakery manager Sheila Bauman show off some of the bakery’s goods, including Pink Angel squares and Little Janes.

In the spacious gift shop are a variety of items from local suppliers sold on consignment: jam, maple syrup, pickled corn, saffron, apple butter, aprons, bibs, tea towels, knitted goods, quilts and hand-painted stones – all made by local residents.

They are a well-worn stop for bus tours. During our visit, the team expressed joy that the bus tours were back.

The Herrfort family are members of the Riverdale Mennonite Church. We ask if there are a signature taste, texture, method or particular products that identify their baking as Mennonite fare.

For Amanda, it’s really about the hands-on process of baking using only minimal equipment. And family values.

“We’re honest, we’re family-run and we all share the values of respect, honesty and integrity,” she says.

After graduating from Conestoga College with a business degree, the mother of three young girls worked in insurance and banking to see what it was like in the wider world. “I’m so glad I did that because then I knew the bakery was where I wanted to be.”

“I love my job. It doesn’t feel like work to me and I’m never bored. It’s stimulating.”

She acknowledges there are challenges and these are part of what makes the work interesting. “It goes in phases, we work on different projects, sometimes labour is a big challenge.”

They are sufficiently staffed at around 90 people – many of them Amish or Mennonite – but they don’t take that stability for granted. “There are ebbs and flows.” They find their staff through word of mouth and through ads on social media and in the local newspaper.

In addition to family – two nephews work at the cash register and in packaging – they tend to hire students for serving and working the cash register in the restaurant, bakery and gift shop. They have several longtime employees. 

“We have the best people. I am so thankful. Everybody cares about the work they do.” 

Anna Mae’s belongs to the Millbank Business Association, which helps advocate for and promote local businesses, artists and shops. Another key community booster is Milverton Shopportunities, a thick bi-weekly newsletter packed with community news, events and ads for local businesses. For 25 cents customers can pick up a copy and know instantly what’s happening in the region.

She says she learned from her parents’ example how to be calm in all situations. “My father was good at multitasking,” she says. 

Kitchen and bakery manager Sheila Bauman adds, “You are good at multitasking. You must get that from him.”

Amanda says she is not afraid to try new things, to initiate a new practice. COVID caused them to rethink the way they work. For example, they added on a large entrance section in the front of the restaurant where guests enter and exit the restaurant through corridors separated by a long cash counter. 

“I’m always thinking, where can we improve?”

During COVID they stopped serving breakfast and they haven’t resumed. Instead they focus on serving lunch and dinner – opening the bakery, take-out and curbside pickup from 7 to 7 and the restaurant from 11 to 7 daily except Sundays.

They have continued their COVID practice of offering one menu for the whole day. It’s a win-win as customers know what to expect and the kitchen can focus their efforts.

Bestsellers in Anna Mae’s bakery are Dutch apple pie, honey dip doughnuts and apple fritters.
Photo: Bakers Journal

The pie’s the thing
Bestsellers in the bakery are the open-faced Dutch apple pie, honey dip doughnuts and apple fritters, the two managers say without hesitation. The long, mouthwatering list of pies on offer include cherry-raspberry, elderberry, raisin, pecan and French rhubarb with a crumb top. After some thought, they add that cinnamon buns, Pink Angel squares and Little Janes are solid favourites. Little Janes are Amanda’s favourite treat. They are doughnuts sliced open like sandwiches and filled with a sweet mixture of cream and icing.

“You are constantly learning,” Amanda says. “Once you understand that and you’re open to that, you’ll do well in this position and setting. Be ready to change and adapt.” 

Of course, tradition is part of the business’s appeal and it’s important to keep the quality of their products consistent. 

Anna Mae’s has a reputation as a must-stop eatery in southwestern Ontario. One of their claims to fame is that they were featured on the CBC TV show You Gotta Eat Here! in 2014 after happy customers alerted the producers. 

Amanda Herrfort is not used to boasting, so it’s heartening to hear her say, after careful thought, “I’m proud of this business.” 

“It’s important to make a happy, positive place. We try to make that known to everyone who works here.”


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