With the pharmacy closed, Bauder's focuses on ice cream — and peppermint bars
See how the famed peppermint ice cream bars are made each year for the Iowa State Fair from the small ice cream kitchen at Bauder's in Des Moines.
Crunchy Oreo cookies. Thick peppermint ice cream. Rich fudge sauce. More cookies.
Dissected into parts, the Bauder’s peppermint bar, a famed Iowa State Fair ice cream novelty, may seem simple. Yet prepping, freezing, cutting, wrapping and hauling thousands of ice cream sandwiches from the storefront to the fairgrounds and into the hands of hungry customers is anything but easy.
“This is a labor of love for us,” owner Kim Robertson said as she fastidiously assembled peppermint bar ingredients on a recent morning.
“We are a family of pharmacists, so if I said ice cream was my best compounding, you should know how seriously I take this.”
While ice cream has always been an integral part of Bauder’s — and of Robertson’s life — the cold confection has taken on new meaning in 2017. Mark Graziano, her brother and Bauder's former owner, pleaded guilty in 2014 and served prison time for diverting hundreds of thousands of pain pills from the dispensary. Robertson made the difficult decision late last year to close the pharmacy, which had been an integral part of the store for 100 years.
FIND THE PEPPERMINT BAR: Download the Iowa State Fair Food Finder app
In the wake of the scandal, Robertson, her family and the store are turning a new page, and the fair offers an opportunity for rebirth. With their famous peppermint bar intrinsically tied to the annual gathering, the festivities mark a kind of official transition from Bauder’s Pharmacy to the newly named Bauder’s Ice Cream.
“It was the right thing to do,” Robertson said of closing the pharmacy. “Timing is everything, and you just have to know when.”
“Now that we closed the pharmacy part, we can kind of zero in on ice cream,” she added, “and, well, it’s just a lot less hassle and much less regulation."
In addition to taking the ice cream to a new level, Robertson and crew can also concentrate on their famous Bauder’s bars. Normally offered in peppermint and mocha varieties, Bauder's will this year debut a Buddha bar, an extra chocolaty ice cream bar with crusts of Oreo cookies and pecans.
Previously available only on the fairgrounds, Robertson, who is working to expand the store’s ice cream bar portfolio, now plans to offer the unique Bauder’s treats year-round at the Ingersoll location.
With “peppermint bars, it is like a cult following,” she said. “People would get so mad because we would only have peppermint bars at the fair and so when we closed the pharmacy, I had to do something to pacify my customers or reward them because it was just kind of bittersweet.”
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In the lead-up to the fair, it’s easy to visit Bauder’s and miss Robertson. Not because she isn’t at the store — she’s there all the time, she said — but because she can’t stay still. Whoever said to take one thing at a time, hasn’t met this ice cream alchemist.
“You can definitely tell when it’s fair time,” said 16-year-old Havah Frank, who’s worked at the store for about two years. “It’s hectic and high-stress, but we are all friends, you know. This is a family place, and fair time or not, they care about us and they want to make sure that we and the customers are all happy.”
Birth of the Bauder’s bar
Bauder’s has been a part of Des Moines’ fabric since the store opened in 1916. Mrs. Caroline Bauder, the original proprietor, was described as a “soft-voiced, quietly dressed little woman barely taller than her own glass counters” in a 1920 Des Moines Register article. Even then, the store was making a name for itself with Mrs. Bauder’s “handy counter for women,” a place where ladies could easily purchase “needles, thread, pins, hooks and eyes.”
Advertisements for the store’s ice cream, including flavors like French vanilla and rum bisque, started running in the paper in the late 1930s.
Robertson’s father, Charles Graziano, became a partner in the store in 1947 and bought the Bauder family out in 1961. As the store changed hands, frozen desserts remained a staple.
When Robertson was 13, her father put her to work in the kitchen making ice cream. Soon, mixing and tasting new recipes became a dad-and-daughter activity.
“We would be in the back room figuring out what flavors we wanted, and he would say, ‘Oh, honey, that is just lush. That’s the best,’” she remembered. (Lush is right; today the ice cream is 12 percent butterfat, Robertson said.)
In 1984, the store’s dairy concoctions were named one of the best ice creams in the country by People magazine. The honor got Mark Graziano thinking about how they could raise the profile of their homemade ice cream.
“My brother came up to me and said, ‘I want to talk dad into going to the Iowa State Fair this year,’” Robertson said. “I said, ‘Sounds good.’ I had no idea then what it would take to do this every year.”
About 13 years ago, Graziano, who mans the fair booth while Robertson stays at the store, decided he wanted a treat they “could just hand out to speed up the line.”
“But it is so busy out there that we needed to figure out a way to put more work in on the front side, back at the store,” Graziano said.
The idea germinated into a sort of ice cream sandwich, and peppermint floated to the top as the featured flavor because it was so popular at the store. Robertson’s aunt suggested a cookie crust to contain the fudge and, voilà, a fair favorite was born.
“The best memory I have of the fair, I swear to God, was I went to see if they were running out of anything, and there’s a kid sitting on the bench,” Robertson said. “He has a peppermint bar and he’s licking the wrapper — to me, that said it all.”
The future is ice cream
Fair preparations are a lesson in hurry up and wait, Robertson said. She begins organizing supplies and planning in January, but she doesn’t actually make the bars until about 10 days before the fair to ensure freshness.
From the moment the first handful of cookies hits the inaugural pan of peppermint all the way through the fair, Robertson and her employees will be layering and freezing bars as fast as they can.
Robertson isn’t sure exactly how many bars she sells at the fair, but every time an employee comes to pick something up from the store, they ask for more bars, she said. While Bauder’s more than covers its expenses with the fair stand, Robertson said the notoriety the store receives from their booth is priceless.
“We do see an uptick in people coming in after the fair and even during the fair,” she said. “Some people think, 'I don’t want to hassle with the fair, so I will just come here.'”
In the years her brother was under suspicion and in jail, Robertson said she did everything she could to keep the store going. She was never charged in the drug-diversion case and prosecutors said they don't believe she was involved in the crimes. Robertson, who still has her pharmacist license, was able to get the store’s full pharmaceutical permit back before closing the counter in late 2016.
“If you choose not to come in here because you think whatever about whoever, that is your choice,” she said. “You have to push that door to come in, and if you choose not to, that is your prerogative. We are still in America and, you know what, I, too, want it to be great.”
At 59, she wishes the drugstore could have lasted two more years, she said. But, with reports that Amazon is exploring entering the prescription drug marketplace, Robertson said she can't be sure what the future holds for pharmacies.
And outside of preparing peppermint bars, Robertson also isn't sure what exactly the future holds for Bauder’s or herself.
For now, she’s happy taking life one scoop at a time.