Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Bob Hiller is a sweet man. Literally.
Known by many as the owner of Janesville’s Rollin Pin Bakery, “Mr. Cream Puff” has spent most of his 89 years (including a birthday Wednesday) providing decadent treats to satisfy every sweet tooth within a cookie toss of Rock County.
A Janesville native, Hiller’s first taste of the baking biz came at age 12, when he was a pan cleaner at Cunningham’s Bakery on Milwaukee Street. After he was kicked out of school in 10th grade, he decided to make the culinary career his primary source of dough.
After serving three years of military duty in Korea, Hiller returned home and saw his stock in the baking industry began to rise. Today, he is recognized worldwide as an authority on the industry, and he remains a trustee for the Wisconsin Bakers Association (he joined the WBA Hall of Fame in 2000). In addition, he remains a member of the Valley Cooperative Association and is past president of the Retail Bakers of America.
Hiller and his wife, Sandy, operated Rollin Pin Bakery out of a storefront on Arch Street in Janesville for 52 years. After entering semi-retirement, Hiller downsized to his current location (1060 Harmony Plaza, Janesville), where he still sells cookies five times each year on weekends preceding Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Fourth of July and Valentine’s Day. (Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays).
Aside from Sandy, who died in 2007, Hiller’s family includes son Bobby, daughters Cathy and Sheila, and his ever-present sidekick, Bailey the dog.
To learn more about Hiller and Rollin Pin Bakery, search for ”Rollin Pin Bakery” on Facebook.
1. How did you first get into baking? I started out washing pans at Cunningham’s Bakery when I was 12 years old. Mostly, I was just looking for something to do, but I always wanted to become a baker. The sweets probably had a lot to do with that.
2. At 89 years old, what drives you to continue baking? One of the big things is that since my wife passed away, I just hate sitting around that house. So I’ve got something to do. I’ve got this.
3. In 1986, you created a full-size mother and baby elephant, two penguins and a clown for the Retail Bakers Association convention. Once you started the project, did you ever feel like you’d gotten in over your head? It took a lot of wood and paper mache, and more than 1,800 pounds of buttercream frosting. I never really felt like I was in over my head, but it was a couple of months of work. That elephant was 18 feet tall.
4. Can you describe one of your worst baking disasters? There were two. Way back, we used to roast turkeys for $2 a bird. We had a revolving oven, and people would bring the turkeys in. We put 40 of them in the oven to cook, and suddenly we heard the damndest noise. Come to find out, as the turkeys baked, their legs lift up, and they got stuck on top of the oven. That tipped over the top shelf, which tipped every other shelf, and the turkeys all ended up on the bottom of the oven. I had a young guy working for me, so we got rakes and started raking the birds out of the oven. At that time, we also made a lot of banana bread using cornmeal, and after baking it, we would brush off the cornmeal, which would fall to the bottom of the oven. It was blacker than pepper. Well, the birds were just damp enough that all this black stuff stuck to them. We tried washing off the black stuff, but the skin was coming off, too. We didn’t know what to do. The young guy suggested going to the store and getting black pepper, so I bought a bunch of it and we peppered the birds. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my business. People are going to be so upset.” But would you believe that, after Thanksgiving, all these people came in and said, “Oh, that was the best-tasting turkey I ever ate in my life?” But that was the end of that. It was such a mess.
Another time, (First Lutheran Church in Janesville) ordered 75 9-inch lemon pies. I had an old Chevrolet truck with back doors that wouldn’t stay closed, and I had trays in the back of the truck. In those days, Court Street would go up, and then there would be another grade in the road where you had to shift into second gear. The church wanted the pies by 5 p.m., so I headed up Court Street with these pies on the racks in the back of the truck. Well, I had to shift into second and, when I did, the back doors came open and the pies went all over the street. Parker Pen was just letting out of work at 4 p.m., and workers were all standing around, laughing like hell. Tires on automobiles in those days were real thin, and cars trying to get up that hill kept getting stuck in the lemon meringue. The city had to come out and sand the street. What a mess.
5. How difficult was the decision to close your longtime bakery on Arch Street? After 52 years, I kind of wanted to semi-retire and just do what we’re doing now (with a smaller place and fewer hours). My bookkeeper said,” You should have done this 70 years ago,” and he was right. Not near the problems as with the bigger building.
6. If you’re looking to sneak one of your own treats, which one do you tend to go for? The chocolate chip cookies. They’re small, and I can eat about six or eight before I get full. The problem is, if I start eating them and then go down to the restaurant for lunch, I’m too full to eat.
7. It must be difficult to not gain weight when you’re constantly surrounded by sugary delights. How do you keep the pounds at bay? I just keep on moving. You’re taste-testing all the time, but I move around a lot and don’t sit down too much.
8. How important is social media to the continued success of your business? That’s been very helpful. I just can’t believe the people that keep coming out. I’m always hearing, “I saw you on Facebook. That’s why I’m here.”
9. In the number of years you’ve been in business, I’m sure you’ve had your share of rude customers. How do you deal with them? We don’t get too many. After we talk, we give them a treat. That usually works.
10. You’ve stopped making your famous eclairs and cream puffs. Why? The federal government took all of the trans fat out of shortening, and there’s nothing we can do. I’ve gone through four different companies’ boxes of shortening, and they’re all the same. We just can’t make them anymore because they don’t turn out. On a Saturday, we used to take in more than $20,000 just in cream puffs and eclairs. Now it’s just gone. We tried everything. I’ve had different bakers call and ask me what to use, but nothing works. None of us know what we’re going to do.
11. What is the hardest thing about being a baker? The long hours. We usually worked midnight until whenever we were done. I don’t work those hours now, but I did for many years.
12. What is your favorite cake flavor? Chocolate with chocolate buttercream icing.
13. Is Rollin Pin Bakery simply named after the baking utensil, or is there a deeper meaning behind it? It’s just named after the rolling pin. We were using them all the time, so it just came to me.
14. Away from food-related activities, do you have any hobbies? I like to draw. That’s how I got kicked out of school. Being a cake decorator, you have to have some art ability.
15. Your career in the baking industry presented you with many opportunities to travel. Was there any particular trip you enjoyed most? I was putting on a show in California and this Australian baker asked if I would like to come to Australia, all expense paid, to put on a program. So the wife and I went to Australia for two weeks. I was also over in France, and in Mexico a couple of different times. I don’t know how I had the time to do it, traveling all over the damn country.
16. Aside from the eclairs and cream puffs, was there any other particular item that really took off in popularity? We made this one cake called a sh_t cake. This girl who worked at Montgomery Ward’s came in and said she needed a cake for her boss I said, “What kind?” and she said, “Just a pile of sh_t. That’s all he’s worth,” and out the door she went. A couple days later she called and said, “Did you figure out that sh_t cake?” I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, get busy.” So I took two 8-inch layers of chocolate and a 7-inch and shaved them down, iced it with chocolate and took a big white tube of chocolate and swirled it all around. Then I got some peanuts, took the shells off and threw them in the chocolate. I put some toilet paper on it, and I found some fake black blowflies to put on it. That really took off. You couldn’t believe the people who came in for those. It was the biggest-selling cake we made. We made hundreds of them for graduations, and I even had one guy order one for his daughter’s wedding. I would have never thought something like that would take off the way it did.
17. Are you self-taught, or did someone teach you how to bake? I’m pretty much self-taught. I started out at Cunningham’s Bakery making about 26 cents an hour, and I picked up a lot of things from Dave Cunningham. But I learned a lot of it on my own.
18. How has the baking industry changed since you got started all those years ago? The equipment is one of the biggest things. Also, it’s hard to find real bakers. People don’t want to work anymore. That’s one of the biggest changes: A lot of bakeries are going out of business.
19. You’ve held countless fundraisers and made donations to charities and special events in an effort to give back to the community. Why do you consider this such an important endeavor? It’s the best advertising there is. We donate 7,000 cookies to Rotary Gardens each year just for the holiday light show. I like to help out.
20. How many cookies would you estimate you pump out in a year’s time? A million? When we have a sale coming up, we’ll have more than 2,000 bags of chocolate chip cookies, and there are two dozen to a bag. Plus, we sometimes have sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies ... usually about 500 dozen each. We are almost always baking.