Jean Kay’s: Putting the Past Back into Pasties
By Eric C. Hammerstrom
Sometimes the future lies in the past, in the way things used to be. That’s exactly how things are for Brian Harsch these days, and that makes him proud for a great many reasons.
After seven years of retirement, Harsch is once again owner of Jean Kay’s Pasties & Subs on Presque Isle Avenue in Marquette. His business plan is simple: take the shop back in time more than 20 years, to the days when Harsch made the words “Jean Kay’s” synonymous with “Pasty.”
“I’m back,” Harsch said. “I made a cash offer to the former owners, they accepted it, and I’ve bought back my family business.”
“I could see the business had changed, as any business would,” Harsch explained. “But my mom’s name was still on it. It wasn’t just a financial move; it was a matter of pride.”
Harsch said he has already begun putting that pride back into the pasties at Jean Kay’s, and thinks the customers will be able to taste it.
“What I’ve done is very simple,” he said. “I’ve gone back to making the pasties exactly the way I did for 26 years (before I sold the place), back to the way grandma used to. I’ll only use the best meats and produce. I’ll give the best product I can. Anyone can buy a business, but you can’t buy the pride we had in Jean Kays.”
That pride was earned through hard work by the Harsch family, who began the story of Jean Kay’s when they opened a small bakery in Iron Mountain in December of 1975. Over the next 26 years, the Harsches built a future on the ideals of the past.
Ironically, the dream of Jean Kay’s began when Brian failed to graduate from Iron Mountain High School. Out of concern, Harsch’s parents bought a storefront and opened a family bakery so their son might learn to work hard and could have a future.
“My parents were selfless,” Harsch said. “They gave a great deal of their hard-earned money to a 19-year old who couldn’t finish school.”
When they started the business, Brian refused to have it named after him; “I didn’t want anything that was going to go bankrupt named after me.” But Brian’s mother believed in him and suggested naming the business after her—”Jean Kay’s Sweet Shop.”
After going to baking school in Minnesota, Harsch returned to Iron Mountain and began making donuts and other baked goods. Things seemed to be going well at first. Then, big business arrived in Iron Mountain and threatened the existence of the family bakery.
“That’s when it all happened,” Harsch said. “Mr. Donut came to town. Within a year, our sales had dropped 75-percent. I could see the worry on my parents’ faces, and I could feel it when I went to work.
“My dad took on another job, plus working at the shop. I knew we weren’t going to survive unless something happened—and it did.”
Jean Kay’s idea saved the shop from bankruptcy. With the bakery on the brink, she suggested making pasties “like grandma used to make,” with high quality meat and fresh produce. Pasties would be popular in Iron Mountain, she argued, where people had always loved the meat and potato pie, a traditional staple to the underground miners in the region.
While commercially-made pasties were available in stores, they were made with ground meat and potatoes and tasted nothing like “grandma’s,” according to Jean Kay. Making food the old way was the answer, she argued.
The next day, armed with steaks and 100 pounds of potatoes, Brian and his father baked their first batch of Pasties.
“It took eight hours to peel the potatoes and one hour to cube them,” Harsch recalls. “And we rolled the crusts out individually and cut them with a #10 can. We were total amateurs and it took us four days to make 100 pasties.”
They gave the pasties away to the few customers who stopped in to buy donuts and Jean Kay’s Pasty Shop was born.
While the Harsch family had found its niche, it took Brian and his father quite some time, and considerable experimentation, to turn pasties into profit.
“With the advice of friends and bakers I met when I went to donut school, we developed an efficient method of hand-rolling the dough,” Brian said. “I could roll out 200 skins (dough for the crust) in two hours with a 25-pound rolling pin.” While Brian developed stronger forearms rolling dough, his father solved the problems of potato peeling.
“My dad read in the paper that they’d be auctioning off kitchen equipment at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital,” Brian said. “And there was the answer—a green/gray machine that weighed a ton. It took four of us to haul it up the stairs and into the shop. But now we could peel and cube 100 pounds of potatoes in less than two hours.”
With the purchase of a meat cutting machine that cubed and tenderized the meat at the same time, the family was able to invest in their product instead of production. And the product began to sell.
The pasties did more than save the business from bankruptcy. Encouraged by the popularity of Jean Kay’s pasties, Brian’s sister suggested expanding and opening a pasty shop in Green Bay. So, in 1977, 21-year-old Brian left Iron Mountain and opened a Jean Kay’s in Green Bay.
“Things didn’t go very well in Green Bay,” Brian said. “They don’t eat pasties like yoopers do.”Brian’s father had taken extensive loans to fund the expansion, and over the course of two years had lost more than $50,000. With the business again headed for bankruptcy, Harsch explained, it was time for another miracle.
In December of 1979, Brian closed the shop in Green Bay, packed his bags and moved to Marquette, Michigan, at the age of 23.
He rented a small building on Presque Isle Avenue, barely big enough to house the equipment it took to make pasties–two huge ovens, the potato peeler, a mixer with a power potato cuber on it and two huge forearms. With no embellishment, he worked 107 hour weeks selling pasties and sub sandwiches in hope of saving his parent’s dream and paying back the money lost in Green Bay.
His father never asked for the money, but Brian paid back the entire bank loan in just two years.
“I lived on nothing,” he said. “I had an apartment, but almost never went there. I worked, that’s it. That was my goal.”
The people of Marquette noticed how hard Brian worked, and they could taste it in the pasties he made. Jean Kay’s popularity grew and caught the attention another man who had found success through hard work.
“One thing I did right when I moved to Marquette,” Brian said, “was that I bought all of my produce from Cohodas and Sons in Ishpeming. Sam Cohodas also happened to own the largest bank in Marquette. In 1985, Mr. Cohodas approached me and told me I needed to expand my business.
“I told him I had no money to expand.”
Then Cohodas helped Harsch arrange the purchase of a building on the corner of Presque Isle Avenue and Center Street for $50,000, while the bank financed the remodeling. A new location for Jean Kay’s was born. The pasty shop occupies that building today.
Brian paid back his debt to Mr. Cohodas through hard work and good ideas. To increase sales, he began shipping pasties across the country in vacuum packs through UPS, selling enough pasties in that fashion to pay the mortgage in the slow months and to continue expansion in the good months. In his off hours he went back to school and graduated from Marquette Senior High School in 1989.
He continued to make Jean Kay’s grow and prosper. The business did so well he could afford to sell it and retire at the age of 44.
Retired from the pasty business, he had more time to spend with his wife, Kathy, and two daughters, Angela and Brianna. Harsch stayed involved with local businesses as a consultant and member of the Kiwanis Club, and tried his hand at other endeavors. He was an insurance adjuster for a time, then bought and sold steel for his brother-in-law throughout the Southern states. But nothing quite filled his desires or gave him the pride he felt in the business he started with his parents. He looks forward to working with Brianna (“Bea”) at Jean Kay’s this summer, the third generation of Harsches to bake pasties like grandma made.
“So, I’m back,” he said. “My mom died in 2003, but my dad is 87 years old and lives in Florida. He’s fired up that I’m back at Jean Kay’s. And when I walk into the shop, it’s all second nature to me.
“We are now all USDA inspected and one of the cleanest kitchens I’ve ever been in. We’ll be making the best product we can, the way we did for all those years.”
Harsch added he’ll continue shipping pasties coast-to-coast through Jean Kay’s website, allowing migrant yoopers the chance to buy pasties like grandma used to make through credit card purchases over the web.
“We’re baking for a wedding in May, where we’re shipping 120 pasties,” Harsch said. “The groom moved away a decade ago. He was 14 years old the last time he had a pasty and it was one of ours. He’s 24 now and getting married and Jean Kay’s will be there, just like it used to be.”
The way it used to be, just like grandma used to make. That’s the whole idea.