Joe's Bakery: an early-morning tradition in downtown Washington

Rick Shrum

Joe's Bakery is a sweet place specializing in sweet treats that foster sweet memories along North Main Street. It's where a customer can take their sweet time selecting from the delectable wares inside the showcases.

The owner/operator? Joe Vucic Jr. is an old-school baker and entrepreneur who displays an occasional crusty exterior, according to his staff of two. Six years of Army service, a city upbringing and decades as an independent merchant can lead to an element of crustiness. Yet, to those who know him, that tough side is a mere veneer.

"Joe can be bossy, but he means well. He has a big heart," said Julie Birch, a four-year employee. "Joe calls every morning and wakes me for my 4 to 4:30 (a.m.) start."

Tracy Calhoun, the delivery driver and a 23-year employee, gets a similar call at a similar time. "He is obviously a good guy," she said. "Joe is a little bossy at times, but he is probably the best friend I've ever had. We've been through thick and thin."

He may be part curmudgeon, but Vucic Jr. is as sweet as the selections inside the shop that bears his name.

For 41 years, Joe's Bakery has been an early-morning tradition in downtown Washington, a destination for court personnel, media members and dozens of others who work or reside in or near the city. It is the name of a highly visible local business, and the principle behind it - for this is, indisputably, Joe's bakery, and has been since 1981.

"We're old-fashioned," he said around 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, near the end of his typical 14 1/2-hour shift. "A customer gets a white box with tape. You cannot find a bakery like this nowhere . . . well, you might find one in Pittsburgh."

His store may be old-fashioned and cramped, but it is a delight to customers because of the many delights under glass, especially the ones he has iced. There are doughnuts, maple rolls, cookies, cakes, pies, bread, buns - just about everything but coffee. "We don't want to be a coffee shop," he said. "There's nowhere to sit."

Vucic, a longtime Washington resident who recently turned 65, devotes most of his life to a building constructed in 1920 that is 16 feet wide and has been a bakery for nearly 80 years.

"I work 75 to 80 hours a week, and it used to be more," said the owner, a trim man with a mustache who looks as if he could go 12 rounds in the ring - and probably could. "My day starts at 8 p.m. I see what's going on, what orders I have. That's why we close at 10:30 (the next morning)."

A work regimen like that can contribute to crustiness. Yet, he displays an engaging personality and quick wit during even a brief conversation. He is a voracious reader, always up on current events, and loves to speak with customers. He likely knows more about the goings-on in the city than some elected officials.

Vucic, who is single, essentially makes everything on site, which includes a massive 10-foot-wide oven. There is a Hobart mixer - "the Cadillac of mixers," he says - and a hand crank cookie machine he bought 35 years ago, "the best investment I've ever made."

Joe's opens at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and shuts five hours later. There is a steady stream of customers, some of them longtime regulars, who proceed past showcases to the right and left and to another straight ahead, where the register sits. Three patrons in the store at one time is a crowd.

The manufacture and sales of baked goods is a tradition at 123 North Main, dating to World War II.

"Robert Flaherty started it as Fleming's Bakery in the early 1940s," Vucic said. Fleming eventually sold the shop to Weir Burt, a World War II veteran who hired 15-year-old Joe Vucic in the early '70s.

Nearly a decade later, and nearing an end to his military commitment, Joe Jr. had an opportunity to purchase the business - and did in 1981. His father, Joe Sr., who also worked arduous shifts, ran the shop for six months until his son could return home. They teamed up to run the bakery until 1992, when the son took over a business that, at the time, had about 18 employees. In the interim, Joe Jr. purchased the building in 1988.

"I borrowed from everyone when I started," Joe Jr. said. "There were about seven bakeries in the city in the '80s, but not now. I've survived because I work so hard and can't work for anyone." Vucic also has survived a fire in October 2019 that damaged the upper level of his shop, causing "minimal damage"; brain surgery in 2007; and sinus surgery this spring. "I close the shop if I'm not around," he said.

He said he uses "the same recipes as Mr. Fleming. I got them from Mr. Burt." The Joe's Bakery sign on the storefront also originated with Fleming and was acquired by Burt. "I kept the capital B" from the Burt name and added "akery."

Vucic is a lifelong city resident but is not a Washington native. He was born on the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the oldest of six children. "There was a lot of pollution," he said of his early memories in the shadow of steel mills. "All of my relatives worked there."

The family moved to Washington in 1962, and Joe attended Immaculate Conception School. "I graduated early, at 17, and went into the Army, where I was a cook and baker," he said. "The recruiting officer asked, 'What do you do?' I said, 'work in a bakery.' They said, 'OK,' so I did that (in the military)."

He served for six years, three of them in Germany, before retiring as a sergeant in the Third Armored Division. Vucic returned to his hometown and made a career in baking. One of the shop's front windows, however, is a salute to the military, featuring a flag and his boots and field jacket. The other window features a seasonal display.

He said the coronavirus has cut into his business but acknowledged that customers have been coming back. The overall state of his industry bothers him, though. Manufacturers are using shortcuts to produce bakery treats, not dedicating the proper TLC - and time - to what they are making. Not dedicating the TLC - and time - that he is.

"Nobody wants to do this kind of work now," Vucic lamented. But he still enjoys it, still takes pride, and does not plan to retire for a while.

And the consensus is that he isn't really crusty. "I have a lot of former employees who say this was the best job they've ever had," Vucic said, smiling.