A Family Tradition of Danish Bakers

Sweets on display at Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe
Nancy Cervera, 21-year Copenhagen employee, helps Barbara & John Nevin, long-time customers and Millbrae residents

Beloved Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe in Burlingame going strong 

For more than 40 years, the Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe has been delighting customers in downtown Burlingame with their signature Danish specialties and local favorites.

It started when Ralf Nielsen, co-owner of Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe with brother Ben Nielsen, decided to strike out on his own and follow the family tradition in the bakery business. Ralf returned to Denmark to learn from an uncle who ran a successful bakery. Two uncles and a grandfather were bakers and both brothers were born in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

“Our grandfather was the pivotal one in the bakery business,” said Ben Nielsen. “Most of the family is in the food business, either as butchers or in the produce industry. In Denmark, the family made fish balls, pickles and open-faced sandwiches.”

The pair moved to the U.S. as children in the late 1950s and were struck by how Burlingame reminded the brothers of the village feel of their native Denmark. 

In 1977, Ralf bought the Francis Pastry Shop from the previous owners who taught him their recipes over the next year. Soon, the brothers added their own family recipes to the lunch menu and the Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe was born. When Ralf enlisted his brother Ben to come work for him rebuilding the bakery and adding new counters, the transition was complete.

“I came to work for Ralf by accident and once we learned the recipes from the previous owners, it became a melding of the two,” Ben Nielsen said.

Food fare expands to meet community needs  

They served lunches and pastries to their growing customer base and found that they soon needed more room to increase their capacity. In 1983, with lunch service doing well, they added more space by enlarging the business when Morning Glory, the previous tenant next door, decided to move.

With just a few outdoor seats, and the city of Burlingame extending the sidewalks, the brothers expanded their footprint a third time in the late 1990s while adding dinner, breakfast and more outdoor seating. Today, the Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe includes both a walk-in bakery and a sit-down cafe that becomes a full-service dinner restaurant most evenings.  

And despite some rumors that Copenhagen is either closing or was sold, Nielsen said neither are true.

“Business is doing OK and we’re hanging in there,” he said.

Patrons can order food to-go from either the bakery or lunch counter, while eat-in breakfast and lunch is self-service. Dinner is a traditional, complete dining experience from Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Most popular cakes and other “famous” items

Some of the most popular items served at the Copenhagen Bakery are the meatloaf, which is made daily, the open-faced sandwiches and their famous Chinese Chicken Salad. 

The most popular morning bakery item is the chocolate chip coffee cake. Another huge favorite is the traditional Danish, which is different than a classic American pastry.

“Our Danish is lighter, flakier, has smaller pieces and it’s made with a layered dough similar to puff pastry,” Nielsen said.

Before long, the brothers found success with their unique custom cakes. Wedding cakes in Denmark are made much differently than American wedding cakes. In Denmark, wedding cakes are made in a ring called “kransekage” or “krans” for ring and “kage” for cake. The rings become smaller as you go up and flags are added into the sides to represent the union of the two wedding parties.

The cake department has been run for more than 20 years by Elizabeth Kachhi, who hails from Switzerland. The custom cakes are made for all occasions, including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms and communions. The bakery employs two artists who make the cakes and they can make a 3D design.

“Our most popular kids cake right now is the unicorn cake with horns, the mane and ears,” said Kachhi. “People bring in pictures.” 

The Swedish Princess Cake has the most sales. It is a sponge cake made with raspberry jam, custard and whipped cream and topped with green marzipan. The cake is green because the Swedish princess’s favorite color was green.

Copenhagen sweets

Through fads to feeding loyal customers

Over the years, the business has weathered different food fads. The owner attributes their longevity to not succumbing to the food crazes that have come and gone over the years.

“There was the muffin mania, the bagel, the croissant trend and the cupcake craze,” said Nielsen.

Yet, all the while, loyal customers kept coming back for the family atmosphere at Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe, the good food and custom cake creations.

“The food nourishes the body and mind; it makes me feel comfortable and there’s something for everybody,” said Mark Johnson, a real estate broker and a 35-year customer who grew up in the area.

Johnson eats at Copenhagen about five times a week, including dinners about once a month.

Some notable customers include John Travolta, who sent a staffer to pick up his order, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger whose bodyguard is Danish.

It’s known that Presidents would order from Air Force One and the crown prince of Denmark has visited.

“The Crown Prince has come in with his bodyguards about four or five times,” Nielsen said.

“A family” of loyal employees 

Elsa Cabrera, a 17-year deli department staffer, started as a cashier and finds it a fun place to work.

“We have almost the same customers every day so we know what they want. We start getting the food out when we see them coming,” Cabrera said.

Millbrae residents John and Barbara Nevin eat at Copenhagen twice a week and even come for dinner service, too. Some of their favorite items are found in the bakery, including the Irish soda bread, pastries, cookies and cinnamon rolls.

“They keep it clean and he’s got wonderful employees here who are all very friendly,” John said.

Some bakers, chefs and even sandwich makers have worked at Copenhagen for decades. Current chef Jody Goens is only the second person to handle the ever-popular dinner service.

“Longevity is important to us,” said Nielsen. “It sounds corny, but a happy worker means a happy environment.”

Copenhagen staffers
Ben Nielsen, co-owner, in the restaurant with long-time staffers.

Copenhagen Bakery & Cafe is located at 1216 Burlingame Ave. in Burlingame. Calif. 94010  Dinner is served Wednesday-Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Call (650) 344-4937 or go to copenhagenbakery.com for more information.

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