Brownie lovers have followed Athena’s Silverland Desserts since its doors opened in Elmwood Park. That was 30 years ago, and the business — now Silverland Bakery on Desplaines Avenue in Forest Park — has grown from 400 to 12,000 square feet, employs 20 workers and makes delicious brownies and other bars for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Nordstrom’s, as well as a host of high-end restaurants and caterers throughout the Chicago area.
In fact, business has grown so much for Athena Uslander, 57, of River Forest, that she is arguably in the enviable position of having to turn away lucrative contracts because in her current space, she simply cannot produce her sought-after desserts in the volume those new clients require. So now the building at 439 Desplaines Ave. is for sale.
Uslander hopes to find a new space that will allow her to expand. At the Desplaines location, she says, “there’s nowhere to go. We need our parking, so we cannot expand that way.” She hopes to find a space offering at last 30,000 square feet, with which she could quadruple her workforce. That’s because “even automated, we would need more people. I refuse to do gigantic batches because then it becomes a different thing than I started,” Uslander says. She will not bend on quality, which is part of what draws demanding clients like Trader Joe’s.
“They insist every ingredient be non-GMO [genetically modified organisms],” she noted. And just last week, another big client joined the fold: Argo Tea.
Until the property sells, though, it’s business as usual, with the small retail store still open daily. There’s coffee, and day-old treats at the counter; the small glass pastry case contains trays of brownies, bars and “raw bars” that are left over from what was made for restaurants, grocery stores and other large clients. Several small tables and a couple of booths welcome customers who wish to sip coffee and linger over a chocolate truffle brownie or perhaps a “Twisted Mountain” — an enormous chocolate chunk cookie made with milk chocolate disks and salted pretzels. There are also many vegan, sugar-free and fat-free brownies and bars.
The shop itself is one of Forest Park’s hidden treasures; she does not advertise since the focus of her business is not the tiny retail portion.
In 2005, Uslander was chosen as a spokesmodel for Dove’s Pro-Age, an advertising campaign that focused on “real beauty” and featured modestly posed nude models over age 50. Her participation led to public relations appearances on Oprah, numerous morning news shows and trips to Prague (“I spent a week there having fun with the other models,” she said) and Spain. For a time, she also wrote a weekly blog for Dove. The experience had the pleasant side effect of introducing her and the business to a much bigger audience.
Uslander herself is Iranian-born. She speaks Persian, English and Spanish.
“I speak Spanish all day,” she says. Trained as a structural engineer who designed bridges, she realized early in her career that she needed greater scope for her creativity and skill than she could find with structural design. So in 1983 she and friend Lisa Silverman started “Silverland Brownies” in Elmwood Park, at first making just one product, a brownie, using Lisa’s grandmother’s recipe. She still uses a scientist’s precision to measure ingredients, employees say.
The business, sans Silverman after the first year, has never stopped growing. Her former mother-in-law, Uslander notes, initially objected to the business, thinking it would take her focus off the children. Now those brownies have put all three children through college. They have also enabled her to give generously to charitable foundations.
Uslander supports the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and has established a fund called Athena’s Silverland Desserts Fund for Women and Girls, intended to enhance the lives and self-esteem of women and girls in need. She will match any contribution made to this fund.
She has two daughters and a son from her first marriage; the eldest, Leila, works at her mother’s side as Silverland’s marketing director.
Uslander, who kept her married name after her divorce, describes her great love of tennis as “my little passion.” That little passion led to another — she married tennis pro Jim Sloan in 2001. Do they often play tennis together these days? Uslander laughs: “Asking him to play tennis on vacation is like asking me to bake brownies!”