Judging by the way WERC’s Tommy Charles talked about Irmgard Klingler, it was no secret he was smitten. Taken with the baker’s goods—and charming German accent—T.C., as he was known on morning radio, would sing her praises over the Birmingham airwaves in the ‘80s. Intrigued, his sweet-toothed supporters flocked to her Alabaster bakery, where they satisfied their curiosity—and palates. Four years after opening in 1987, Klingler’s European Bakery and Café ceased to be a hole-in-the-wall. Having outgrown the space, Irmgard and her husband, Richard Middleton, began looking for a better fit. In 1991, they packed up their baking supplies and cuckoo clocks, and relocated to the shop’s current Vestavia Hills location, much to T.C.’s delight.
Irmgard, affectionately known as “M,” piqued the locals’ curiosity with her German-Southern cuisine and brazen disregard for wait times. Timing-related complaints were swiftly met with directions to the neighboring McDonald’s. Irmgard wasn’t in the “fast food” business, she’d have you know. Fortunately, most diners found Irmgard’s no-nonsense attitude more amusing than off-putting. For them, the wait was worth it. From the bratwursts and reuben sandwiches to the cheesecakes and Christmas stollen, Klingler’s delicacies have received their fair share of acclaim. In 2012, the Alabama Tourism Department declared the bakery’s Black Forest Cake as one of the “100 dishes to eat before you die.” And for a short while, the staff entertained a film crew pitching a new Oprah Winfrey Network show.
Klingler’s owner and manager Michelle Witherington, Irmgard’s and Richard’s daughter, can’t let her mother take all the credit for the restaurant’s renown though. “It took the two of them; they both had this love of food. One couldn’t have done anything without the other,” she explains.
Michelle’s parents blended their respective cultures into a fusion fare as harmonious as their marriage. Richard, mistakenly known as Mr. Klingler, didn’t mind the matrilineal affiliation. He was a creative, behind-the-scenes kind of guy. The former Birmingham Police officer would retreat into the café’s kitchen, adding a dash of Southern flair to Irmgard’s family recipes while she took center stage front of house.
Irmgard first caught Richard’s attention while he was stationed in Germany, serving in the U.S. military in the 1950s. On her way to work she’d bike past the barracks, a strategic route, playfully tossing her dark hair over her shoulder. Magnetized by Irmgard’s je ne sais quois (a French phrase meaning “I don’t know what”), the Hueytown native didn’t want to return home without the German temptress. Then 19 years old, Irmgard eagerly agreed to the new adventure. But she never completely left Germany behind. She’d cook up sweet memories of home through her mother’s recipes, giving her children a taste of their heritage.
“My sister was at the grocery store one day, and she overheard a conversation with the manager and said, ‘Well, my mom makes the best cheesecakes,’ and he said, ‘Oh really? Well how about bringing me 40 by Friday?” Michelle recalls.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Irmgard said yes. In 1982, she started selling her coveted cheesecakes to restaurants and hotels who’d taken notice of her baking chops. Five years later, the demand for her desserts was insatiable. In 1987, she opened her first brick-and-mortar in Alabaster, where she launched the café side of the business.
Over the years, Irmgard’s and Richard’s tastes melded together, their synergy yielding a peculiar product: German-Southern American cuisine. The couple’s recipes had evolved naturally via decades of rubbing elbows in the kitchen. A cultural hodgepodge, the menu is exactly as it was intended to be, Michelle insists. “The fusion, it’s always been who we are.”
But now, seven months after her mother’s sudden passing, Michelle has been forced to reexamine the café’s identity without its most prominent fixture. She’s accepted that she cannot recreate the experience of having her mother around, but she says it’ll still taste like she is.
“It’s almost like the customers are surprised the food still tastes the same. But she wasn’t as involved in the back. She was always up front, making sure everyone was being taken care of,” Michelle reveals.
The 84-year-old workaholic hardly took a break, much less a vacation. But at Michelle’s urging, in January she finally took one, albeit reluctantly. Having forgotten to pack her anxiety meds, Irmgard did what any plane-fearing German would do: drink beer. She even sent Michelle selfie evidence of her pre-flight inebriation.
While Irmgard was out in Las Vegas with her other daughter, Michelle realized she could get by just fine with the help of the store’s longtime pastry artist, Edith Webster. Knowing the 28-year Klingler’s employee can hold her own in the sweets department, Michelle is pivoting towards the savory side of the business. A recent Jefferson State culinary school graduate, Michelle is excited to adapt the menu to new cooking techniques.
Regulars need not worry. Michelle wouldn’t dare risk the backlash from a menu overhaul. She’ll continue to honor her parents’ memory by bringing back old favorites (mushroom strudel and Bavarian chicken, anyone?) and taking a stab at traditional European dishes Klingler’s isn’t yet known for.
“There are some things that have to change over time, but others…I just want to keep how she left them,” Michelle says pensively, her gaze drifting toward the back office where her mother hung up her coat for the last time.
New at Klingler’s
- Tasty Tuesday – Sample some of Michelle’s latest creations.
- Throwback Thursday – Savor former fan favorites like the mushroom strudel and Bavarian chicken.