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A Few Great Bakeries in Seattle: Nielsen's Pastries

Last week KCTS 9 went behind-the-scenes at one of Seattle’s most beloved bakeries, Tom Douglas’ Dahlia Bakery. During our visit we explored Dahlia’s history as a bakery, the dedication and values their employees have and, of course, the delicious treats they create. This week, we share another exclusive, this time about another Seattle favorite: Nielsen’s Pastries

Nielsen’s is located on 2nd Avenue West, just south of Mercer Street. Although the bright pink signage is easy to spot, it’s the bakery’s wonderful delicious aroma that captures the attention of everyone who passes by. The smell of freshly made Danishes, Kringles, cinnamon rolls and other mouthwatering pastries linger around the building, drawing individuals in—even if they hadn’t originally planned to stop at the bakery.

Walking into Nielsen’s is like taking a step back in time; the décor, the service, and the classic treats all evoke a bygone era. Nielsen embodies its Copenhagen roots and takes customers on a journey that opens the mind and satisfies the taste buds. 

Recently we sat down with Holly Dahlstrom, Nielsen’s Pastries Manager, who spoke with us about their treats, their customers, their work and their legacy within the Puget Sound community. 

There is a rich and unique history to Nielsen’s. How did the bakery come to be in Seattle?
Holly:  We opened in 1965—this year we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. We were originally located downtown, where Benaroya Hall is today. The bakery was opened by John Nielsen, who was in his late 20s when he came from Copenhagen, Denmark. He trained in Denmark, and rumor has it the person who trained him was the baker for the king. So we basically have a direct lineage to royalty! John owned the bakery until the late 1990s, and then passed the business on to our current owner, Darcy, who had started out as John’s apprentice. Darcy has owned Nielsen’s for the last 15 years. 

Is John still active with the bakery?
Holly: Yes! He is in his late 70s now, but he is still as charming as ever. He comes in every Friday because it’s really fun for him. He still likes to be in this shop. He is really involved and that’s really awesome. Sometimes we have customers who are visiting from Denmark, and if John is around he will come over and talk to them in Danish.

What does it mean to you when you hear that Nielsen’s is one of Seattle’s favorite bakeries?
Holly: It makes me so happy! I love this bakery. As you can see, it’s really old school. When people walk in here they say, “Oh, it looks like it did when it was in downtown in 1965!” So it kind of feels like you are in this little hole in time that you can slip into. It makes me feel really happy that people still care about it and love it so much. We have so many people who are dedicated to this place; you see that dedication in our customers and our employees. People who have been here for a long time, they really enjoy being here because—it sounds cheesy—but it’s a lot more than just a bakery. This is a family and a really long tradition in people’s lives. We’ve been part of some people’s Christmas traditions for 50 years!  Even if they don’t in come very often, everybody comes back for Christmas. It just feels like this giant family reunion. It’s so fun. I just like that over time, more and more people are stepping into Nielsen’s story. 

What makes Nielsen’s different from the other bakeries in Seattle?
Holly: I have lived in Seattle my whole life and I have seen this city change a lot, especially in the last 10 years. Everything is getting really modern, fancy and chic. But I think a part of what draws people to Nielsen’s is that we’re not that way. Nielsen’s is like a breath of fresh air. Nobody feels like they have to put on airs or anything; it feels authentic. People really like that about this place. It’s different and it stands out in that way. It’s not necessarily something we have done on purpose—it’s just something that came to be from John and Darcy’s ownership, and it continues to attract people. You don’t need to remodel the place—as long as the food tastes good and people like being here, that’s what matters. 

With all the little tiny apartments being built around Seattle, there are lots of places to call home. My biggest hope for Nielsen’s is that people can feel like this is their home. There are people who come with their computers and sit here and do work all day. They feel really comfortable here and that makes me so happy. I say, stay as long as you want; I just want people to consider this home. Because I definitely do and I like being able to share that with people. 

Since Nielsen’s focuses on traditional baking from Denmark, do you ever get requests from customers who would like you to make certain Danish treats that they grew up with?
Holly: All the time. We honor them if we can, depending on our workload at the time. We try things, and people really appreciate that. It’s fun. 

Also, we make a ton of wedding cakes. We have people come in and order a cake because Nielsen’s is where their parents got their cake. That’s why it’s really important to all of us that Nielsen’s sticks around. It’s a part of a lot of people’s family history. It’s very rewarding. 

Nielsen’s has been around for more than 50 years. Has the menu changed since it first opened?
Holly: It’s changed a little bit. We have some more popular, Americanized treats—like cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, cookies—and those aren’t super Danish things. Plus, we do lunches and salads too.  A part of it is the attitude that bakeries have changed. You can even see that in the way that our hours have changed. We used to try to stay open until people got off work; that way, they could stop by and get pastries to take home for desserts, but that’s just not really culture anymore. People go out for dinner; they don’t normally make a nice dinner at home and pull out the pink boxes afterwards. It’s definitely shifted focus. We are located near a lot of offices, and they have individuals who are looking for a place to get lunch or a place in the morning to grab breakfast and coffee. In Europe, there are bakeries around every corner, and that’s not the case here. It’s just adapting to the culture around you. 

Were you familiar with Nielsen’s or the Danish culture prior to working here?
Holly: I am Norwegian and Danish. I love being here because I feel more connected to my heritage than I have ever had before. There are some things that I have grown up with, and it’s fun that I was able to learn how to make some of those things. 

What is your favorite menu item?
Holly: The Cinnamon Danish. It’s a cross between a cinnamon roll and a Danish, so it’s made with Danish dough, but it has almond paste and cinnamon baked inside. It’s delicious!

How would you describe the relationship between Nielsen’s and the city of Seattle?
Holly: We try to be connected to the community as much as possible. We do not want anything to go to waste, and we want people to enjoy our food; so every week we donate our leftovers to Northwest Harvest, who then distribute them to local food banks. 

We are really dedicated to making people feel comfortable here and making them feel like they are a part of our family. We just want to be an open and loving space for people. It’s the happiest time for me when I look out and see, at every table, people enjoying our treats and life together.