By Beacon Staff
Before The Ivy Bake Shoppe became a cultural touchstone of the local dining scene, Martha Wolf was a social worker with a baking hobby.
A native of Gulfport, Miss., Wolf moved to Hannibal Mo., as a teenager. She began working for child protective services in Fort Madison after graduating from Truman University.
Wolf dealt primarily with people who wanted to be better versions of themselves, such as poverty-stricken single mothers struggling to keep it all together.
“No one wants to be a bad mom. Most everyone I came into contact with wanted to be a good parent. They just don’t have the resources,” she said.
Wolf and her business partner, Sue Welch Saunders, began selling baked goods from the lower level of Welch’s home in 1992, forging new lives in unexplored directions.
Three years later, they moved into their first brick-and-mortar store in Fort Madison. It took years of good sentiment fostered through never-ending work.
“We drug our own dishes to (cater) parties. We were passionate,” Wolf said.
The duo discovered a market for small, homemade desserts. Turns out most people don’t want to be responsible for consuming the majority of a dessert they created.
Despite their local market savvy, Wolf freely admits they weren’t as sharp on the business end of things. After seeing a convection oven for the first time in Davenport, they roundly rejected the technology.
“Sue and I looked at that and said, ‘Why would we want to cook in a convection oven?’ So we got two double ovens, regular (household) ovens, which makes no sense whatsoever,” Wolf said with a laugh. “We were a hindrance to ourselves because we weren’t professional restaurant people.”
Three years later, the household ovens gave out, and The Ivy switched to convection. Four years after that, in 2002, the duo opened up the Ivy Bake Shoppe’s West Burlington location in Shottenkirk.
Sue retired when she and Martha sold the Fort Madison location in 2013. Wolf also ran The Downtown Ivy branch in downtown Burlington from 2015 to 2019. In that time, Wolf came to know nearly all of her regular customers.
Many of them brought her to tears while saying goodbye during The Ivy’s final day of operation Saturday (Feb. 27).
“I’m going miss the friendships,” she said.
Employees wore green T-shirts featuring customer quotes Saturday, eyes tearing up with emotion. Wolf often worked beside them on the line. She sliced the bread. She made the supply runs.
For 29 years, there was hardly an hour in the day when Wolf wasn’t working at The Ivy or thinking of it. She earned write-ups in The Times and The Chicago Tribune.
The Fort Madison and West Burlington Ivy locations became hotspots for Iowa governors and political candidates. Wolf welcomed them all, from Joe Biden and John McCain to Terry Branstad and Chet Culver.
Biden even kissed Wolf on the cheek during a visit, taking her cookbook as a gift.
“He was just delightful,” she said.
Wolf is 71-years-old and only started to consider retirement when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Before the virus, Wolf was angling to take a day off once a week. Then, the state-mandated a closure for a few months.
For the first time in 30 years, Martha took a breath, and it felt good.
“I thought, ‘This is okay. I think I can do this.’ And I found things to do. It was the first time I nested at home in 25 years,’” she said.
Martha reopened the Ivy for a few more months, but her mind was made up. Her age, her 10 grandchildren, and the difficulties of running a restaurant during a pandemic created what she called “a perfect storm” of circumstances.
“I want to have lunch with my friends. We’ll have groups come and stay for a couple of hours. I want to do that,” Wolf said, her eyes filled with mirthful envy.
And she will finally get back to work on her second cookbook — the one she has been promising since 2014. The recipes are all written, Wolf said.
“I’ve got to get that cookbook done,” she said, setting deadlines for her life of retirement. “And I want to bake and entertain in my home when all this COVID is over.”