In the 1880s, two brothers named Baker left Georgia and the antebellum mansion of their youth, moved to Chicago to learn the wholesale grocery business and then set themselves up as wholesalers in St. Paul. Their specialty was spices, coffees and teas, but before long they focused on coffee.
Thomas K. Baker was first, and was quickly followed by his brother William. They spent a few years setting up and growing the Baker Bros. coffee import business. In the 1890s, they had two firms: Baker Bros. in St. Paul, run by William, and Baker & Co. in Minneapolis, run by Tom. Their Minneapolis address, 212 2nd St. N., still stands and is now home to the exceptional restaurant Demi, a place with great fondness for its coffee-roasting predecessors.
When the Baker brothers arrived in Minnesota, Swedish egg coffee was a ubiquitous part of Minneapolis culture. The beverage is made by mixing a whole raw egg with the coffee grounds and then tipping the mixture into near-boiling water. The egg binds together the coffee grounds. A cup of cold water added at the end causes the egg-coffee mass to sink. The coffee that is poured off has no cloudy particles and is smooth and easy to drink. This Scandinavian-American method of making coffee may have so perplexed the southern Bakers that Tom came up with an egg-free way to make the same thing.
In 1902, he took out a patent for a coffee maker with a funnel strainer. It was meant to make sediment-free coffee. The device was only for making coffee; the brew was to be transferred to a coffee pot and then poured to drink. It probably didn’t work very well. It seems not to have sold. The only known example of the Baker coffee maker is on view today at the Hennepin History Museum as part of the “Inventions and Innovations” exhibit.
Their company in Minneapolis soon became known as Baker Importing and it grew quickly. Tom and his wife, Nellie, were the first owners
of a fine square house at 2015 Kenwood Parkway. Built in 1901 by a developer who lived on the next block, the house waited patiently for the Bakers to move in with their three children in 1903. They stayed in the home for three years.
In 1906, Tom Baker moved part of the business to New York City. William and their younger brother Roswell ran the Baker Importing Company for decades more, creating demand for “steel-cut coffee” and supplying instant coffee to the military through two world wars.
Karen Cooper is a researcher at Hennepin History Museum. She’s interested in your old house, charmingly odd cookery and the disappeared businesses of Minneapolis.