By Katie Winter
Fifty years ago Tony Marelic was a young Croatian immigrant seeking his slice of the American dream. He found it in slices of pie, cake and bread.
For 48 years and counting, Marelic has made his living rolling dough and mixing cake batter. Most of those years, 38 to be precise, were spent at the Dassel Bake Shop. For the past decade, Hutchinson’s Cash Wise Foods bakery has been home.
Baking is his passion and a talent that came naturally, but in November 1962 a career as a baker was the furthest thing from Marelic’s mind.
“I said I was going to work for a little while until I make some money,” Marelic said. “Then I was going to move down to the city. But then month after month after month, I kind of liked the small town. Now here it is 48 years later, I’m still here.”
Marelic took a circuitous and at times harrowing path to both Dassel and the bakery. Born in the tiny village of Cara on the Croatian island of Koraula, Marelic grew up surrounded by the consequences of World War II. At age 6, his father was killed, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings. There were no schools and jobs were scarce. At age 17, he enlisted with the Croatian Navy. His service time ended three years later. Marelic and a colleague soon “got in trouble” with the communist government and were forced to flee to Italy.
“A friend and I got political asylum in Italy,” Marelic recalled. “We had to go back to Italy and emigrate from there, wherever we like to go. So we signed up. We were going to go to Australia or we were going to go to United States. We got visas to go to (both), so we decided to come here.“
They were placed in Cleveland, Ohio, where they subsisted on $20 a month and raw bacon sandwiches – cuisine a far cry from that Marelic would be making only a few months later. After an invitation from a relative in Hibbing, Minn., Marelic moved to Minnesota. He worked in his cousin’s St. Cloud pizza parlor before taking the baker’s job in Dassel.
“I started at 3 a.m., then I don’t go home until I’m done. So sometimes on a busy day, I worked 10, 11, sometimes 12 hours,“ Marelic said. “I got paid every two weeks. My first check I took home was $55. Oh I was so excited because I never seen that much money in my life. I was really excited.“
Those first days at the Dassel Bake Shop were some of the most instrumental and instructional in Marelic’s life.
“Before I started working in Dassel, I never worked in the baking business before,” Marelic said. “I couldn’t speak much English. It was tough because I had to learn the language and I had to learn how to do the job. It was tough.“
Now, twice a week, Marelic uses the kitchen at Cash Wise Foods bakery to make his treats. It is a part-time gig that keeps him active and in touch with many loyal customers from Dassel. In the afternoons, Marelic hands out samples of jellyrolls, garlic toast and cookies to shoppers as they pass. As those shoppers stop at the table, they are greeted with Marelic’s warm smile and urging to try something. As much as he loves baking, seeing people enjoy his food brings Marelic equal pleasure.
“It worked out perfect for me,” Marelic said. “I could not ask for better. Cash Wise are fantastic people. They are friendly and treat me very nice. I really enjoy every second. Every morning I go, I feel happy to go to work because I know I’m going to have a good day.”
During the last half of century, Marelic has soaked up a wealth of information that has rendered his brain a venerable cookbook of delicious baked goods. He bakes everything from memory, without the aid of recipes. He can recall the exact baking temperatures and ingredient proportions strictly from memory. He also does not rely on timers to know when something is done. He only has to look at a baking loaf of bread or cake to known when to pull it out of the oven.
“I never went to school for baking,” Marelic said. “I was making stuff and would remember everything. This was how I learned. So today, whatever I do I never look in book because I have everything up here. I think my memory is very, very good. Even if I have not made that in years, I still remember it.”
The assortment of baked goods Marelic can flawlessly create from memory range from rye bread and cowboy cookies to coffee
cakes and doughnuts. All are made from scratch with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. No matter what other bakers are
doing, he sticks to his origins. He thinks chemicals have no place in baking.
“I don’t use preservatives,“ Marelic said. “Everything is natural. What we put into our mouth goes into our body. If you keep putting bad gasoline into an engine, guess what’s going to happen? The engine is going to go bad. Whatever I do, I make if from scratch and I make it fresh. This I’ve been doing all my life and I’ll never change it.”
Marelic has no plans to hang up his apron anytime soon, either. He’s grateful for the opportunity to do what he loves.
“I never think I was going to be in the baking business this long.” he said. “As long as I’m able to do it, I’m going to do it. And if I cannot do it no more then that’s that.”
Cash Wise Foods, bakery, Hutchinson, MN
1020 Hwy 15 South
Hutchinson, MN 55350