Bent and Susy Olsen
The Danes who founded Solvang in 1910 reshaped the landscape with their architecture and social institutions. While their windmills and quaint shops continue to draw visitors and serve residents nearly a century later, it’s not only the cityscape that commands passionate allegiance, but the town’s pastries, those irresistible confections that perfume the air with cinnamon, spice and fresh baked goodness.
Since 1970, Bent and Susy Olsen, owners of Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, have contributed to that ambient aroma, turning out kringles, cakes, cookies and breads from recipes perfected by Bent’s great-grandfather. A fourth-generation baker, Bent proudly maintains a bakery much like the one his family established in Denmark in 1890. “We’re the most Danish-looking bakery in town,” Bent declares, his bright blue eyes scanning the tidy tables, “and we’re the only one that’s strictly a bakery—no soup, salads or sandwiches. We keep the old Danish bakery tradition alive.”
Visitors in search of authentic Danish sweets flock to Olsen’s bakery, while Danes living all over California stop in for a taste of home and the chance to speak a little Danish over coffee and kringle. Locals who drop by to greet friends often linger at a corner table, hashing over the latest news and game scores. This December, a giant gingerbread house sporting sugary white snow and twinkle lights stands in one corner, delighting all who enter.
“I’ve made table-size gingerbread houses since we opened 40 years ago,” Bent explains, cutting a trim figure in his baker’s whites. “I built my first giant gingerbread house 15 years ago. It’s not Danish, but it’s a wonderful, Northern European tradition, and why not bring the best traditions to Solvang?”
As Bent adds frosting icicles to the gingerbread eaves, customers gather for a dab of sweet icing from his pastry tube. He obliges good naturedly, explaining, “It’s a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites. Good, isn’t it?!”
Bent began baking in Denmark, where he was born and raised on a small island just off the southern coast. As a child he loved to draw and paint, and when not working in the family bakery, often set up his easel to capture landscape scenes.
After four years of apprenticeship, Bent traveled to Sweden for advanced culinary training to prepare him to take over the family bakery. In the early 1960s, to round out his education, Solvang baker Carl Birkholm Sr. (who apprenticed under Bent’s grandfather in Denmark) sponsored Bent so he could come to the Santa Ynez Valley to work in Birkholm’s Bakery, learn about American business and see a bit of the world.
Eager to speak English and not getting much practice among his fellow Danes, Bent took classes at Santa Barbara City College, where he met Susy, fresh from her native Italy. She was in town temporarily, caring for the daughter of a couple she had met while working at an art gallery in Rome.
“I didn’t come here to immigrate,” Susy says. “I came to go to school, not to stay. Then I married and never moved back home.
“When I first came to Solvang,” she remembers with a chuckle, “it was 1966 and there wasn’t even a movie theater here. After a few years, I got used to it, and now I like the small community, the peace and quiet.”
Bent hadn’t intended to stay in the U.S. either, but in 1967, when the couple heard that the German wives of servicemen stationed in Hawaii wanted authentic European pastries, they postponed their return to Denmark and headed to Honolulu. “Every European dreams about being in Hawaii,” he explains.
Two years later, at the request of Carl Birkholm Sr., who needed help with his booming business, the Olsens returned to Solvang. In 1970, when John and Betty Larsen offered to sell the Olsens their bakery on Mission Drive, the couple finally nixed long held plans to move to Denmark.
“I had always wanted my own place,” Bent says, “and we were both ambitious enough. We were not afraid to work long, hard hours.” Bent’s father encouraged the couple to buy the bakery, and even closed his family’s 110-year old business, so that he and Bent’s mother could move to Solvang. The two spent six years showing their son and daughter-in-law how to run a successful bakery, before flying back home to Denmark.
“The ’70s were amazing years,” Bent remembers. “Business was unbelievably good. We had some setbacks, like the oil embargo that kept tourists away, but we’ve always had a lot of local trade to keep us going.”
Those years also saw the Olsen family grow with the birth of their daughter, who currently lives in Calabasas, and two sons, one now in Norway, the other in Solvang, and none of whom work as professional bakers.
In 1976, the Olsens put some of their profits back into the community by purchasing the Solvang Inn and Cottages, located across the street from the bakery. “Those two businesses work well together,” Bent says with quiet pleasure, “because people stay there and then come over here for breakfast. It’s a good partnership.”
When the Olsens built an annex near the inn, Bent devoted one wall to an evocative tile mural that pays tribute to the first settlers in Solvang.
“I love Solvang and its history,” he explains. “The town has been great to us and I would never live anywhere else.”
In 1999, the Olsen family bought one of Solvang’s original downtown buidlings, a structure that, throughout the years, housed Solvang’s first bakery, as well as a hardware store, and a pool and beer tavern. The building is still home to the 50-year-old Viking Restaurant, a local eatery that former owner Knud Miller operated well into his 80s, and that is now run by the Olsens’ youngest son, Thomas.
Bent serves his adopted community by being active in the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau (SCVB) and the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association, as well as in Danish organizations, including the Vikings, Danish Brotherhood, Danica, Rebild Society and the Elverhoy Museum.
In October 2008, the SCVB acknowledged his efforts to maintain the heritage of the “Danish Capital of America” by presenting him with a Solvang Visionary Leader award. The award was presented to Olsen when Solvang began an application for a “Preserve America Community” status, a federally recognized initiative aimed at preserving regional identities. After nearly 40 years, the Olsens continue to run the bakery together, with Susy tending customers in front and Bent working the ovens in back.
“Baking is my life,” Bent says. “Even after all these years, I still love my trade. I love working with food and decorating cakes, because I can use my imagination. I come in when no one’s around just to experiment with new things.
“There’re a lot of similarities between art and baking,” he reveals, “and I get the same satisfaction with my cakes as I do with painting. You mix colors and you can draw on a cake like a canvas.”
Using his imagination and large quantities of ingredients, Bent likes to create super-sized items, such as the world’s largest Kransekage (Danish wedding cake) that he made in 1994. Two years later, he whipped up a 10-foot-tall pastry man—the Danish equivalent of a birthday cake—that served 1000 happy guests at Taste of Solvang.
After a lifetime spent around bakeries, Bent still harbors a profound respect for his craft, as well as a powerful sweet tooth.
“I love dessert,” he admits. “Forget about the main dish, just give me the dessert. Apple pie, chocolate cake, ice cream. I like just about everything.
“My father was 97 when he died last year,” Bent says quietly, “and the last words he said to me were, ‘Don’t ever let your bakery go. Always stay involved with what you love to do, so you’ll never get old.’ ”
Bent plans to move into the Lutheran Home at 85, “whether I need to or not,” but also intends to continue making the rounds at his beloved bakery, where warm hospitality and Danish pastries will always remain a way of life.
An aerial view of Olsen’s home town, Ærøskøbing, a place he says is “very much like Solvang.” The city is unique in Denmark with its legally protected 17th century architecture. Exteriors of the buildings here are exactly as they were centuries ago. American author Temple Fielding lists Ærøskøbing among his five must-see places in the world
Settled In Solvang
August 22, 2009 by Reka K Badger
Filed under Featured, Winter 2009
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