Few, if any, museums smell like freshly-baked pastries. Spaans Cookie Company, full of both treats and antiques, may well be the closest thing. Open the door to the longtime Galt fixture and your sweet tooth will thank you. If the smell of sugar, cinnamon, chocolate and fresh dough doesn’t hit immediately, then the neatly-stacked plastic containers of cookies should quickly make the mouth water. (And that’s before reaching for the samples.)
Once the initial craving subsides, the pieces of history grab your attention — and a business with roots in Galt for nearly 60 years and a family baking tradition stretching back over a century has plenty to offer.
Lining the walls inside the C Street shop are old family portraits, as well as wooden tiles with windmill imprints that were originally used to cut out cookies. Other relics include an old-style coffee grinder and a replica of the blue 1922 model-T Ford buggy that once served as delivery car.
And therein lies the essence of Spaans: Even as its daily production has grown from 1,000 cookies up to a million, and its product is carried by retailers across the country and around the world, the unique family atmosphere remains.
“It’s definitely a fine line,” said Rick Spaans, a fourth-generation member whose parents, Jim and Sharon, are the owners.
Rick’s siblings, Darren and Melissa, have all been involved with the company; he currently works with Melissa and brother-in-law Loren Thompson to help oversee daily operations. And recently, Jim’s teenage granddaughters, Tara and Brittney, have come aboard to work as cashiers.
“We want to keep that feel of a traditional, homestyle business, but also want to stay current,” Rick said.
With a warm smile, Jim Spaans, 71, waves to and greets every worker as he passes through the large cookie production factory. Located across the alley from the shop, it was added in 1996 as Spaans began expanding their shipping to a large national scale. Inside, large hunks of dough — mixed in the factory itself — pass through metal mold rollers, where they are made into a variety of holiday-themed shapes; Halloween pumpkins, bats and ghosts are currently in play. From there, the dough shapes pass through a 100-foot oven and cool along a 350-foot, circular conveyer belt before going to packaging.
Through the factory’s windows, outside observers can see the cookies come out of the oven.
“I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Jim Spaans, whose own mechanics made some of the equipment. “It was basically bigger machinery, faster machinery, doing everything we were (already) doing on bigger scale.”
It’s the most modern iteration yet of a tradition that started in 1896, when Jim’s grandfather, Peter, earned a baking apprenticeship in Holland. After immigrating to America in 1912 and starting out as a wheat farmer in Kansas, Peter returned to the cooking craft and opened a bakery in Muir, Mich.
Peter’s son and Jim’s father, William, continued that legacy by starting the Spaans Dutch Bakery in Muskegon, Mich., with his wife Anna in 1935. William went into business with his brother Peter in the 1940s, selling donuts and other pastries, before moving Jim and the family to Modesto in 1948.
After running a bakery there for 10 years, the Spaans family settled down in Galt (then a 1,200-person town), where the current shop was founded in 1958. Jim and his five siblings helped their parents with the day-to-day upkeep, working hard and following a longstanding family motto: “Use the best ingredients and give people their money’s worth.”
That slogan has endured in a menu that is constantly adapting to new trends. The store now offers more than 50 different types of cookies, featuring fat-free and sugar-free options. Four years ago, Spaans added gluten-free meringue to its selection.
And yet come holiday time, few items are more popular around town than some old-fashioned home-cooking: an assortment of pies, rolls, turnovers and other pastries, prepared by hand and baked in the same oven that was used when Spaans was still a one-roof operation. Fittingly, their pie baker, Patti Staggs, is carrying on a legacy, as well — her late father, Cliff, became the first main baker for Spaans in 1960.
“No one really does it by hand anymore,” said Jim Spaans, who has only brought the pies back over 15 years ago. “But it just tastes better.”
Galtonians agree, as the holiday season brings pick-up lines out the door and around the block.
Tara Spaans and the rest of the counter staff have helped ease those long waits by passing out tasty cookie samples — a warm gesture in line with the shop’s homestyle roots.
“I love the family tradition,” Tara said. “It’s really cool to be carrying on the tradition that generations before had started. I’m pretty proud.”