Silverland Bakery Cafe just completed a major renovation of its facility at 439 Desplaines Ave. Longtime customers were worried that Silverland might be moving when actually it was becoming bigger.

“People were in a panic that Silverland’s was closing,” said sales director Peter Wodek. “This place has a real cult following. Everyone knows Silverland.”

To celebrate the completion of the six-month project, Silverland hosted a Grand Reopening, Dec. 9-10. Guests were served free samples of Silverland’s famous treats, along with complimentary coffee and champagne. Thirty percent of the sales were donated to Athena’s Silverland Desserts Fund for Women and Girls.

The bakery’s famous brownies are well-known in faraway places like Dubai but the company still has that down-home feeling of a family business. The renovation expanded the bakery’s production space, while upgrading its equipment to 2016 standards. They even changed the company’s logo from purple, green and silver to harvest gold and light brown.

This softening of the palette reflects Silverland’s most recent product line, which includes nine kinds of natural food bars, vegan brownies, flourless bars and sugar-free bars. 

“We’re trying to stay current,” Wodek said, “although we’re still using the same recipes from 35 years ago.” Sometimes these natural food bars outsell their gourmet brownies, which are their high-end product. 

“They’re an indulgence, a treat,” Wodek said. “People give them as gifts. We get a lot of walk-in traffic during the holidays.” 

The café does a steady business but 95 percent of Silverland’s sales are wholesale. They sell to grocery chains and shops like Argo Tea. “We work with Whole Foods all over the U.S.,” Wodek added. “The standards are so high at Whole Foods.” When he pitches their products to other retailers, being accepted by Whole Foods says it all. 

It seems fitting that grocers are stocking Silverland’s baked goods when one considers that its Forest Park location was formerly Calcagno’s Grocery Store. The bakery, though, began life inside the former Zenith plant at Dickens & Austin in Chicago before moving to Desplaines Avenue in 1994. 

“We still get customers who came to our Chicago facility,” Wodek noted.

The founder and driving force behind Silverland is Athena Uslander. She emigrated from her native Iran to study engineering at Southern Illinois University. She was planning a career in bridge-building when she befriended a fellow student named Lisa Silverman. Silverman had an old family recipe for brownies and the students combined their last names to launch Athena’s Silverland Desserts. 

“Athena decided she didn’t want to build bridges,” Wodek said. “She wanted to make double chocolate brownies.”

The bakery is convenient to Uslander’s River Forest home and she goes there daily to work on product development. 

“She mixes and matches in the kitchen and tweaks her personal recipes,” Wodek explained. The bakery offers 15 kinds of brownies, eight varieties of bakery bars and 11 kinds of classic cookies. The 20-person company produces 50,000 brownies a week. These brownies have been praised by industry organizations and national publications. However, Uslander also became famous for an entirely different product.

In 2005, she entered a modeling contest on a lark and was chosen to be the model and spokesperson for Dove’s Pro-Age products for women over 50. Uslander’s exotic looks appealed to many different cultures. “There were huge billboards of her in South America,” Wodek recalled. Uslander used the money she earned from the advertising campaign to launch her charitable fund. She doesn’t attach much importance to the fame she enjoyed. She’s much prouder of heading a company that has provided a good living to her employees.

To keep her company competitive, she launched the makeover of its facility. “This remodeling is huge,” Wodek said. “It’s a big commitment to the community of Forest Park.” The work included building a new wall to expand the production area, installing new tile, a new counter and a chalkboard wall, where the menu can be easily changed. 

“We are at the top of the industry with safety codes,” Wodek said, noting that Silverland has never had a recall in its 35-year history. 

Uslander wanted to reward her loyal customers at the Grand Reopening. “We are looking forward to re-introducing our café to the community with our customer’s longtime favorites,” Uslander said. “Welcome and enjoy!”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.