Mia Paulsen filled a couple of boxes with Keefer Court’s famous steamed pork buns, but her list wasn’t done.
“OK, Mia, how many curry buns do you want?” asked Michellle Kwan, armed with a set of tongs behind a counter window full of freshly baked sweet and savory buns and cakes.
“Five to eight—however much you can spare,” Paulsen replied before adding on a smorgasbord of pastries and inquiring about “#nicebuns” branded sweatshirts also sold at the shop.
Paulsen, a Korean adoptee from Elk River, was making her first visit to Keefer Court Bakery & Cafe, the traditional Chinese shop that is ending its 40-year run in Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood on December 31. The bakery has a special place in her heart thanks to her daughter, Kara, a University of Minnesota student who has become a regular there.
Keefer Court is a destination for many Asian Americans and others in Minnesota, and since the family-owned bakery announced last month that it would be closing, the demand for customer favorites has skyrocketed. Customers are making a pilgrimage to the bakery at 326 Cedar Avenue South, forming lines outside before it opens at 9:30 a.m.
“Every day is like the Lunar New Year,” owner Michelle Kwan said with a laugh, referencing the typical madness of the Chinese New Year.
The shop stopped offering its baked goods for order online through food delivery services because high demand was emptying the in-store inventory. But customers can still order its other offerings—noodle soups, congee, and other Chinese and Hong Kong-style menu items—online.
Kwan, 37, took over Keefer Court from her parents, Sunny and Paulina Kwan, and has been running the business for the last five years. But she realized that running the shop longterm was unsustainable, and when a local buyer offered to purchase the building from the family, it presented a good opportunity for her parents to retire.
“Dear beloved Keefer Court customers, we have some news to share with you….after almost 40 years of making your favorite Chinese pastries, we are closing our doors and sending Sunny and Paulina into happy retirement,” the bakery posted on its website. “We are so sad to say goodbye but have enjoyed so many decades of being part of this wonderful community. You have shown us so much love and appreciation that we will cherish all the friendships and connections we have made over the years.”
Paulsen is trying to extend Keefer Court’s lifespan as long as possible: she plans to freeze dozens of the 60 buns she bought on her recent visit to the shop. Paulsen said her daughter, Kara, wasn’t exposed to a lot of Asian culture growing up, but has embraced her heritage at college and enjoys connecting with Asian flavors and supporting Asian-owned businesses. Every time Kara visited Keefer Court, she bought something for her mom.
“We’re going to pace ourselves,” Paulsen said of the pastries she’ll freeze.
Building a legacy
Michelle grew up in the bakery, watching her parents work long hours to build the business that supported their family.
Sunny grew up baking in Hong Kong, where as a boy he ate a barbeque pork bun and an egg tart daily. The other kids called him “dough boy.” But that passion for baked goods provided opportunities. He moved to Canada in 1973 to work as a cook, and left a few years later for the United States. Sunny opened his first bakery, Keefer Bakery, in Chicago in 1980.
He heard through a friend that Minnesota needed a Chinese bakery, took a leap of faith, and moved to the Twin Cities. He settled in Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood, which is also known as the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. At the time, the area featured Asian stores and markets.
The Kwans took over the Keefer Court space in 1983 and moved into the apartment upstairs when a Chinese restaurant, Kwong Tung Noodles, closed.
Sunny and Paulina built their menu on Hong Kong-style staples like egg tarts, winter melon cakes, red bean paste buns, and sticky rice wraps. But the star has always been the pork buns. People come from all over to get their barbeque pork buns, and the Kwans say they have customers from U.S. cities with large Chinatowns who say Keefer’s pork buns are the best.
“That makes me feel good,” Sunny said.
Keefer Court’s offerings have changed over the years. In the late 1980s, they added a restaurant serving dim sum, noodles, and congee rice porridge. The Kwans launched a fortune cookie business that took off, and closed the restaurant in the 1990s to focus on the bakery. They later moved the fortune cookie business to a factory in south Minneapolis and sold it in 2017.
In the early 2000s, the family brought the restaurant back “by popular demand,” Sunny said laughing. For the Kwans, the customer always came first. They wanted to serve good food at a fair price.
A lot of people who immigrate to the United States assimilate, but they still have cravings for familiar flavors, Michelle said. Keefer Court provided that comfort food.
“A lot of people would come in and say, ‘Oh my god, these egg tarts remind me of my grandma,’” Michelle said.
The location near the University of Minnesota drew in hordes of student customers over the years, including a large number of international students from Asia. Michelle remembers one young woman who came in a few years ago during finals week in December. The student’s grandmother in China was sick, and she couldn’t go home to see her. So she ordered congee and a fried stick, a meal she’d frequently enjoyed with her grandmother.
“That was really special,” Michelle said.
Keefer Courts staples are specific to Hong Kong traditions, but the flavors and pastries are often cross-cultural and can be found in many east Asian diets, Michelle said. Those flavor overlaps have helped make the bakery a destination for many Asian Americans in the Twin Cities.
Sisters Sheng and Nou Vang were recent Hmong refugee arrivals when they attended the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. The bakery became a regular spot for them, offering good, affordable food. Every time a friend had a birthday, they’d order a fruit sponge cake from Keefer Court.
They lined up outside the bakery the morning of December 16 with their niece, Hongfa Norasingh, who visited Keefer Court regularly for congee when she was a University of Minnesota student a few years ago.
“We had to come one last time,” Sheng Vang said.
Emma Burt grew up in Seattle where there are many Asian bakeries. She’s lived in Minnesota for eight years, and found Keefer Court about three years ago through online advertising.
“It’s hard to find a good Chinese bakery around here, “ Burt said, clutching her final order box.
Burt re-entered the line after paying, realizing she’d forgotten to buy sticky rice dumpling buns.
The Kwans are all hands on deck for the final weeks of business. Sunny is back in the kitchen, and Paulina has joined Michelle at the counter. They’ve enjoyed seeing old faces, like the family doctor who once chided Sunny for working too much, and new ones, like Mia Paulsen, who have come in by the dozen to try the famous buns.
The narrow shop has a robust pastry window, with roasted ducks on the counter. The few tables in the bakery are closed off to customers. Only four customers are allowed in at a time, and a line often snakes out the door to Cedar Avenue and around the side of the building, which is adorned with a Keefer Court mural.
Passing the torch
Michelle was drawn to baking at an early age, and used the kitchen as a playground when she was a child. Her siblings didn’t have the same passion for baking, and she became the logical choice to take over in 2017 when Sunny and Paulina wanted to slowly phase into retirement. Michelle had been running the family fortune cookie business, and moved over to head up the bakery.
“I saw how much joy the bakery gave to the customers,” she said.
Michelle thought she had a good handle on the bakery when she was preparing to take over, but Sunny insisted that she learn how to bake everything on the menu. If needed, he wanted her to be able to run the business all alone.
Sunny has all the family recipes written down, but also relies on years of experience and instinct to identify small nuances that make the difference between a good and a great bun—skills that Michelle needed to learn.
Now, Michelle knows that if it’s been rainy for a few days, she has to tweak the amount of water in some recipes to adjust for the humidity.
“Over the years, I’ve slowly figured it out,” Michelle said.
She brought in some millennial touches to the business, like a more robust social media advertising presence and vegan and vegetarian menu options. That brought in a flood of new customers. It also presented a new problem—ingredient costs were going up and labor costs were higher, but she didn’t want to price the baked goods too high.
“I realized that it’s not sustainable,” she said.
Michelle promised her parents she’d run the bakery for five years, but about four years she knew it couldn’t last forever. She had watched her parents work long hours for years to provide a better life for her and her siblings. But their American dream was for her to avoid that very life.
Michelle wants to find a way to keep Keefer’s legacy alive, and is considering either pop-up shops or a subscription service in the future. Her goal is to continue working as a baker, but she’s not sure exactly how that will look.
“I want to keep making this food and provide it for the community,” she said, “because I see what it means.”