Struggle and Sustenance: A Look at The Danish Pastry House, COVID, and Community

When customers walk into the Danish Pastry House on Boston Avenue for the first time, they might notice the golden tones of the interior or the spacious seating area. They may see the glass display case filled with fruit tarts, cookies, and slices of chocolate cake. They might observe a woman behind the counter happily chatting with customers. 

The Danish Pastry House is a small local business just down the hill from Tufts that serves pastries, cakes, and loaves of bread. Its Medford location is a cafe and a retail bakery, meaning that its products are sold directly to consumers. There is also a location in Watertown that primarily sells baked goods to wholesale partners. These include places like coffee shops and hotels, who then go on to sell these baked goods to individual consumers. 

Ulla Winkler has been the owner of the Danish Pastry House, known as DPH, since 2004. Her aims for running the shop are simple: “I’m not driven by money. I’m driven by happy customers. And that’s my main goal, to make people happy and sell something.” 

The shop means a lot to Winkler. “It’s my whole soul. I put so much into it, but it’s also something [I] just love doing,” Winkler said. “I certainly don’t make a lot of money on it… But … for me, it’s a blessing. I love flowers. And I love pastries. I would say [those are] my two favorite things. And I had a flower shop and now I have a bakery. How more lucky [sic] can I be?”

Winkler’s joy in running DPH reverberates outward to the people she interacts with. Shanni Zhou, a first-year who has been working at DPH for around a month and a half, said, “I know that a lot of people come in and are regulars. And I think they really enjoy the fact that it’s a small business. And Ulla is there pretty often… A lot of people will come in and ask for her.” 

While Winkler expressed a lot of gratitude for the Danish Pastry House, she also acknowledged that times have been difficult. DPH was closed for nine months due first to a fire and then to COVID-19. Winkler said, “So we had a little fire in January. And then before the insurance settled and everything, COVID set in. So then we opened in September.” 

The operations of the Medford and Watertown locations are linked, which creates challenges in a pandemic. A lot of the baking for Medford happens in Watertown, so the Medford location relies on staff in Watertown to produce goods for the Medford shop. One of the main clients that Watertown serves are hotels, but many hotels have been closed due to COVID-19. This is problematic for both locations. Winkler said, “Mainly, they make the pastries in Watertown. If they have no income, then they suddenly [don’t] have any money to buy anything [to use to] produce [goods for] me. Other hotels [are] maybe like 80, 90 percent of [Watertown’s] bread and butter. And suddenly [this business] comes to a total halt. What happened to all your bills? They have to let so many people go.” 

There has been a massive reduction in Watertown’s staff, which has greatly impacted the operations of the Danish Pastry House. Winkler said, “I do bake a little bit, especially with COVID, because we do a lot of baking in Watertown. But since [Watertown had] to cut staff down like 90 percent… that means [Watertown] didn’t have anyone to bake for me so much in Medford.” 

Baking in Medford, as opposed to Watertown, limits what the Danish Pastry House can produce. Winkler said, “[Some things] you cannot really bake. For example … the pastries …  you have to roll [them] out. Danish pastries [are] a sack of 27 layers of pastry dough. So you have to fold it and fold it and then you roll it. Our baking table in Watertown [is] maybe between 25 and 30 feet long. It’s very, very big. So in Medford we don’t have space for it, but we can make smaller stuff.” 

Luckily, DPH has received some help in the form of Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans. These loans have allowed them to resume some of their previous operations that they had to stop due to COVID-19. PPP loans are meant to incentivize small businesses to keep their workers employed. Winkler explained the positive effects of receiving these loans. She said, “We were able to hire more people in Watertown so we can have more [products] back.” 

Another hardship as a result of COVID-19 has been reduced traffic to the shop. DPH has been popular among Tufts students, particularly before the pandemic. Faith Whyte, a senior who goes to DPH about once a week, explained how some students’ habits have changed: “I know that before COVID it was a lot more popular [among Tufts students], but then they shut down … so they were just closed for a long time,” she said. “I feel like now, they don’t have as much of a role in the campus, because a lot of people just don’t know that they’re open or that they’re back to their normal operations.”

Although COVID-19 has decreased the number of people who come to the shop each day, the Danish Pastry House plays an important role in the community. Serena Laing, a junior who works at DPH, said, “I think that it’s a really special and unique place because there’s … Starbucks and all these big chains that kind of don’t really have an association with the community, and places like this that are able to stay in business and be able to … have a little more character to them are really important … I think it’s really special that Ulla has a relationship with a lot of people in the community, and she’ll know people by name.” 

Laing also described how DPH establishes a special physical location. Laing said, “It really just helps add … a sense of place … It’s just a staple of Boston Ave.” 

Laing continued, “I grew up here in Boston, but then I moved to Minnesota. And in Minnesota, there’s so many less little mom and pop shops … That’s something that’s really unique to Boston … how many little gems there are hidden along random streets.” Small businesses do more than just provide high-quality products or foster connection between people; through their individuality, they may contribute to people’s sense of home. 

Small businesses positively impact the community in many other tangible ways, such as by providing local job opportunities and a diversity of products to consumers. Fifty-two percent of small business owners donate to charity, and 90 percent of those who donate give money to local initiatives. They also support other small businesses by requesting services that they need from other local businesses. 

Whyte described what DPH means to her: “It was always peaceful and very clean and it’s just a positive space to be in,” she said. “I just appreciate … always knowing that there’s a place that I can do my work, and where I won’t be distracted and stuff. And it means a lot to me because it’s … where I go and meet people. I meet up with a little girl from my church [at DPH] … and I have lots of memories of me going there with other people and chatting and just talking about life.”

DPH is important to many Tufts students across campus. Whyte described, “When DPH first opened back up, students would go … [and] ask them … ‘How’s business been’ … they were honest: they’re like ‘We’re struggling, people don’t know we’re open,’ and a lot of students came around DPH, they bought them a new sign to put outside … people were really supportive of getting DPH back on their feet and I feel like that kind of shows how much … the business meant to people before COVID.” 

Despite suffering hardships, Winkler emphasized her gratitude to Tufts students: “I’m really grateful because the students have been so sweet. That is just so heartwarming … I’m so grateful for it. They have come in, they made me a sign, they all donated money, [collected] money. And some people have made Instagrams for me. It is so beautiful. That is worth everything for me. Because all the kindness people have shown me … I think that is something beautiful that has come out of COVID.”