The 10-pound loaves of rye arrive in Elkhart from Canada on Tuesdays. It used to be Chicago, but the German bakers there are mostly gone now, Liz Konkle says.
The Lindt chocolates, or at least the best of them, come from Switzerland.
The soft cheddar comes from upstate New York.
The Tilsit cheese and Black Forest ham come from Denmark and Germany.
All of it arrives at 3444 S. Main St., Elkhart, where the Konkle family has operated Himmel Haus for 48 years. Himmel Haus translates to Heaven House.
The shop doesn’t gleam like streets of gold, but the flavors and the traditions there are bright and vibrant. Some of the displays haven’t changed for decades and the posters in the front windows are faded. But customers who have been coming in for years can find exactly what they’re looking for, exactly where they expect to find it.
Tastes of Home
Before opening Himmel Haus, Leonard Konkle had fought in World War II and married a German bride named Annemarie Himmel in 1948. He was from Warsaw but settled in Elkhart to work at Whitehall.
They would go to Chicago to buy the flavors Annemarie craved from home. So would the other German women who had come home with GIs. They missed the bread the most. “That was the most important thing, was the German food,” Annemarie said.
She had been a young businesswoman in Europe and the couple wanted to open a shop in Elkhart. So they saved money.
Local bankers weren’t sure if Himmel Haus would last, but a New York banker told them there were all sorts of shops like this in the Big Apple.
The $15,000 loan was granted, though some of the locals thought the business may last six months, according to Liz.
Leonard built the shop with his son, Leonard Jr., and it opened April 1, 1966. “It’s now 48 years we’ve been in business,” Liz said.
Himmel Haus continues to be a place where you can get German and European foods and gifts. “We also take a few good things from America,” Liz said.
Leonard Sr. died in November 2013, but Annemarie, Liz and Leonard Jr. continue to run the business, which Leonard Jr. compared to a third child in the family.
The immigrants in the community came to the shop for their meats, cheeses and baking supplies. The next generation didn’t come as often. Business was good in the 1980s and 1990s when Bayer Corp. was in Elkhart.
Rooted in Tradition
Himmel Haus hasn’t changed as much as the rest of the world. These days, you can order marzipan on Amazon.com and have it on your doorstep two days. Grocery stores have larger international food sections. Himmel Haus also has a vibrant mail-order business, but it tends to be driven by a catalog, not the internet.
In addition to the food, the Konkles sell German knives, bier steins and European gifts, including chimes that turn from the heat of a candle.
It’s common for older generations to question how much the younger ones value traditions.
But what the Konkle family is seeing now is the third generation coming in for ingredients to make Oma’s cookies.
“People still want to see, they want to see it in their hand,” Leonard said. “They want someone to tell them how good it is.”
The Konkles can tell them how good the wurst is, how the aged salami should be eaten on rye with a bit of unsalted butter. “We eat one of everything,” he said.
Himmel Haus created a place where immigrants in northern Indiana could feed their roots.
Traditions rely on those roots and so this time of year, from October to January, the shelves are laden with special holiday items.
The stollens are there with dipped gingerbreads, marzipan, tarts, rum balls and filled chocolates. “There’s still a lot of things that happen only this time of year,” Leonard Jr. said.
Near the beginning of the season, they ordered a soft cheddar from New York. It’s white and is simply made from milk and culture — unless it’s the garlic flavor, which has a bit of garlic as well.
The cheese is $9.95 a pound and will last in the refrigerator as long as you can avoid eating it. For many in and around Elkhart County, it’s a taste of the holidays. It usually only lasts through November and December. It goes best with a slab of that heavy rye that gets sliced on Tuesdays, or a cracker. And it’s not a disservice to use it as the base for a holiday cheese ball.
The Konkles have found a way through more than one recession. They’ve found a way to operate a business together and get the work done. Now they’re feeding a third generation.
“I think there’s something intriguing in going to a store your grandparents went to as well,” Leonard said.
3444 S. Main St., Elkhart, 574-293-8361
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday