When Athena Uslander came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s, she had no interest in starting a business, let alone a bakery. She was planning to get an engineering degree and get a good, stable job.
But the reality of working for an engineering firm disappointed her – and the fact that she was both an immigrant and a woman working in the male-dominated field in the early 1980s didn’t help.
“I went to school, and I got my Master’s Degree in structural engineering, and got hired by an engineering firm to design bridges, but I quickly found out I wouldn’t be designing Golden Gate [bridges] every day, it would be like highway bridges in East St. Louis,” Uslander recalled. “It wasn’t for me. So, after four years, I decided that was it, I wasn’t going to be sitting there with a bunch of old white men – so I quit.”
She got a structural engineering license, just in case she had to get back in the field – but she was determined to try something else. A friend of hers, Lisa Silverman, was always bringing brownies to parties, and the two decided to try to turn it into a business.
Forty years later, Silverland Bakery not only expanded far beyond brownies, but grew from a 2,000 square foot kitchen in Elmwood Park to a nation-wide supplier. While they have a storefront at 439 Des Plaines Ave. in Forest Park, most of their business has always come from the wholesale side. The pandemic hurt Silverland’s long-time revenue streams, but she said they are on their way to recovering – and they are planning to have a big 40th anniversary celebration later this spring.
Cameron Uslander, Athena Uslander’s son and the company’s spokesperson, said the business started with Silverman’s brownie recipe. The two friends named the business by combining their last names – Silverman and Uslander.
Athena Uslander said when they were starting the business, the idea of selling brownies to grocery stores was unheard of, but they thought there was a niche. And she said that, at first, the concept was a hard sell, and most of their business came from selling their product out of the store. But once they started getting contracts, they picked up momentum. They got another boost when the Olive Garden restaurant chain started buying their brownies.
“We’ve always been sort of a hybrid,” Cameron Uslander said. “What changed was that we went from being a good chunk of our business being retail to it just being a small portion of it. We’ve been primary wholesale for most of the time we’ve been in business.”
He reflected that while the upside of their business is that they don’t have to worry about branding and marketing, it’s also a downside – because their products aren’t branded, if a store stops carrying their products, customers may have no idea who made them and where else they can find them.
Silverman left the bakery less than a year after the opening. Her husband moved to San Francisco, and, in pre-Internet days, there was no way for her to stay involved. Cameron Uslander said his mother changed the bakery’s name to Athena’s Silverland Bakery – which is what many customers still know it as – but “about 10 years ago,” they decided to drop the “Athena’s” part because they thought a two-word name would work better from a branding perspective.
The bakery quickly outgrew the original Elmwood Park location. It moved to Oak Park, changing locations a few times, before settling at the current Forest Park location in 1994. As Silverland grew, its product line expanded far beyond brownies, making cookies, muffins and cakes.
Cameron Uslander described their diverse product lines, and their ability to keep up with healthy eating trends, as one of the factors behind Silverland’s success. But he said that “first and foremost,” the company owed its success to his mother’s perseverance and drive.
“The year she started the business, she actually gave birth to my older sister,” he said. “She was very driven to run a business. And I think, for her, it could’ve been anything. She could’ve been selling car tires and made it work.”
Both the son and the mother agreed that the pandemic was their hardest challenge yet. Their orders from hotels, conferences and private events all but vanished, and with trade shows cancelled, they couldn’t connect to clients. Their revenue dropped by 80%.
“If it wasn’t for retail, we would’ve died,” said Athena Uslander. “We survived, and now, we’re trying to add new accounts.”
Cameron Uslander said they benefitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“There were times in the first few months of the pandemic, my mom was saying maybe we’d have to start over, either scale things down or sell the business completely,” he said.
Since then, the numbers have been recovering.
“We’re not at 100% yet, but we’re on our way,” she said.
Most recently, the bakery faced an unexpected setback when one of its ovens exploded. Nobody was injured, but the explosion blew out the windows – which is why some of them are still covered in plywood as Silverland waits for replacement glass to arrive.
Athena Uslander said that, while they planned a grand 40th anniversary celebration on Jan. 20, when Silverland originally got its business license, they decided to postpone it until the windows are replaced.
She and her son said that they weren’t too disappointed – after all, the actual bakery didn’t open until spring.
“We had our grand opening in March, so no worries,” Cameron Uslander said. “It’s in step with how our business started 40 years ago.”