Almost anyone who has lived in Lexington in the past 60 years knows Magee’s Bakery on Main Street. It’s the kind of culinary landmark that seems unchanged by time.
That’s an illusion. This family-owned bakery has weathered the arrival of packaged baking mixes, the bagel boom and the cupcake craze largely by sticking to its roots, the methods and products made by founder Leslie Magee.
But as the market changed, Magee’s shifted, too, adding biscuits, bagels and croissants, moving away from decorating cakes and, most recently, adding burgers to the hot lunch menu.
The move toward more prepared food seemed a natural evolution to Greg and Beverly Higgins, the brother and sister who inherited the bakery from their parents, Ralph and Joyce Higgins.
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“We already make the bun; why not make the burger?” Greg Higgins said. “We make croissants. ... Why do I want to sell it to somebody else to make a croissant sandwich when I could do that? Same with bagels.”
Every morning, he and his staff are there as early as 4 a.m. to make 30 dozen biscuits, 100 dozen doughnuts, 50 dozen danishes and more, including bagels, hamburger buns, croissant, cookies, rolls, breads and cakes.
The bakery opened in 1956 as an offshoot of Magee’s popular bakery in Maysville. Ralph Higgins, who had been a bookkeeper for Magee, came to Lexington to run the new place in a former Kroger grocery store with his wife, Joyce.
In the late 1960s, they and a partner bought it from Magee but kept the name. In 1972, they bought out the partner, and the Higgins family has owned and operated Magee’s ever since.
In the early days, the business was different; cakes were usually more for eating than showpieces. One big exception: a five-foot-long, 400-pound Ford Thunderbird rendered in cake by Leslie Magee in August 1956 for the celebration of the first anniversary of Paul Miller Ford Co. and featured in the Sunday Herald-Leader.
Magee learned his trade at Berea College and opened a bakery in Maysville in the 1930s, which was then a bustling tobacco warehouse center. The mural on the wall in Magee’s today shows Maysville and the Ohio River in the background.
The proximity to Cincinnati paid off for the baker: Sales representatives came calling from Crisco maker Procter & Gamble, Fleischmann’s Yeast, Wesson Oil, Calumet Baking Powder and more with the latest innovations and recipes. Many of the recipes and techniques were handed down from generation to generation.
When Greg Higgins started working in the business, he had to learn how to make everything from scratch, and it’s still made that way, he said.
“If we’re a bakery, you need to know how to bake,” Higgins said. “I didn’t want to be the person who buys it off a truck and adds water. It’s easier — a lot easier — but it’s like selling your soul.”
He and Beverly started working at the bakery full-time in the ’80s. He focused on the production end, while she turned her attention to decorating cakes.
“The cakes they did in the ’50s weren’t even decorated — just icing, roping and a combination of flavors,” he said. “My sister started putting flowers on when she started in the ’80s, and everybody thought that was a big deal.”
But the trends now are to ever more ornate cakes or inexpensive ones.
“The cake decorating business changed when Martha (Stewart) got into it. It’s too fancy,” Beverly Higgins said. “I’m self-taught, and didn’t go to school for it.”
So she sends customers looking for fancy to Martine’s. Magee’s sticks to customer favorites: carrot cake, Italian cream cake and the bakery’s dense white cake, almost like a pound cake.
Other staples include the transparent pies.
“We’ll make that ’til the end of time,” Greg Higgins said.
This is the same custardy sweet pie that George Clooney is so enamored of that last spring he stopped by the Magee’s in Maysville with his wife, Amal, to get some. That Magee’s and the one in Frankfort are all now separately owned.
Higgins’ late mother, Joyce, grew up in Flemingsburg, which is near Maysville, and was a big Rosemary Clooney fan, so both the Clooneys and transparent pie have a special tie to Magee’s.
Other items around since the beginning: butterflake rolls (“That’s almost biblical for us,” Greg Higgins said) and mallow squares, a marshmallow treat covered in the same chocolate fudge icing as on Magee’s doughnuts.
“One of the first things I learned how to make was the chocolate fudge icing,” he said. When he asked the old-time bakers how he could tell it was ready, he was told, “You just know.” Instead, he searched for the original recipe and learned to use a candy thermometer.
Now he focuses on teaching the next generation what he knows about baking, including his 17-year-old daughter, Shelby. Looking for people interested in cross-training has helped him find the staff to move Magee’s into more hot food for lunch along with the breakfast items.
“We started doing the breakfast bar because more people were going toward that and we already make our own product, so to put eggs and bacon on croissants or biscuits seemed just natural,” Beverly Higgins said. “We expanded our lunch menu, which seems to be going really well. We’ve got some people now that are really talented, so that’s helped us out. We’re doing different kinds of soups and sandwiches, and we plan to add salads.”
But their biggest seller?
“It’s always going to be doughnuts, no matter what,” she said.