This Colorado bakery has been making Mardi Gras king cakes for nearly 20 years

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25min 52sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
King Cakes on display at Rheinlander Bakery in Old Town Arvada, Feb. 6, 2024. King Cake has its roots in Catholic festivals marking Epiphany; in the United States its also associated with Mardi Gras.

February is Black History Month. It’s also known as the month of love, thanks to that little holiday known as Valentine's Day. However, for folks who grew up in Louisiana and across the South, this time of year is also Mardi Gras season; a time to attend festive balls and street parades. This season often includes the joy of chowing down on king cake. The delectable dessert arguably is one of the sweetest ways to usher in the festive season of lively celebrations. And the good news is that you don’t have to go down South to enjoy this little slice of heaven. For nearly 20 years now, a Colorado bakery has been serving up this sweet treat and the backstory of how they got started is absolutely heartwarming.

Arvada has a sister city in Louisiana named Meridian. Celebrate Mardi Gras in Olde Town Arvada on Tuesday, February 13, starting at 5 pm. There will be a parade featuring the Guerrilla Fanfare. 

Colorado Matters co-host Chandra Thomas Whitfield recently met Loren Naftz, co-owner of Rheinlander Bakery, a German bakery located in Olde Town Arvada.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Loren, in your own words, describe a king cake.

Loren Naftz: King cake is a treat made with a sweet yeasty dough. Traditionally it has fillings that can range from cinnamon, which is considered most traditional, but nowadays you can get anything in a king cake. It's cream cheese, cinnamon, and almond. Those are pretty traditional and standard, but praline flavor is very common. Now people make chocolate ones and even chocolate coconut, but the main point is the filling is rolled up inside of the dough and the cake is in a circular shape and on top you put icing with three different colors of sugar: purple, green and gold. All of those colors represent different things and the baby that goes inside of it, really is kind of the main part that people get really excited about.  

Thomas Whitfield: To be clear, you are referring to a tiny plastic replica of a baby that is placed inside of the king cake, right?

Naftz: Yes. Unfortunately, nowadays, bakers can't directly put the baby inside because it is non-edible, but you can place this baby inside of the cake yourself before you serve it and hide it in the cake from underneath. Whoever gets the piece with the baby inside of it is supposed to get the king cake for the next celebration, because it is a full season of celebration that starts on epiphany on January 6th and goes through Fat Tuesday, which is February 13th this year. So there’s not just one king cake for the season. You're supposed to enjoy many king cakes over the course of time and whoever gets the baby keeps the party going!

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
King Cake has its roots in Catholic festivals marking Epiphany; in the United States its also associated with Mardi Gras. Part of the tradition involves hiding a small figurine of a baby in the cake; whoever finds the baby in their slice wins a prize. Rheinlander Bakery in Old Town Arvada, specializes in King Cakes this time of year. Feb. 6, 2024.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield:  Yes! I do remember growing up in New Orleans and we always had them on Fridays at school during Mardi Gras season. Every Friday you had your king cake and whoever got the baby on that Friday got the king cake for the next week. So. we had lots of king cake!

Naftz: I love that. That's so fun!

Thomas Whitfield:  Only in New Orleans would you do something like that at school! It was a lot of fun. When I was growing up, the king cakes were mostly just plain and then someone decided, “Hey, let's add filling.” I've seen Bavarian cream, lemon and cherry filling in king cakes. What is the Rheinlander twist on the king cake?

Naftz: We have our standard mainstay flavors that we'll do. We always have cinnamon, cream cheese and almond. And then strawberry cream cheese has been added now as a mainstay, but we always like to pick at least one or two things to spice it up and make it a little bit new. It keeps it kind of exciting that we'll just offer them even for a limited time through the Mardi Gras season. So this year, since Valentine's Day is so close to Fat Tuesday, we're going to offer a chocolate variety. People may walk in and buy blueberry or lemon filled ones too. We decided to add in those flavors just for fun. So we always like to have the ones people can rely on, the flavors that they can expect to order and sort of fall in love with and keep getting. Certain ones are exciting and new, customers can walk in and purchase those too.

Thomas Whitfield: And Mardi Gras this year is February 13th. The date changes every year. So this is what we refer to as an “early Mardi Gras.”

Naftz: It is! It's always interesting because then of course (the Catholic observance of) Ash Wednesday is the next day. It falls on Valentine's Day this year, which is an interesting situation.

Thomas Whitfield: Because Ash Wednesday, in the Catholic faith, is a day where you're supposed to deprive yourself of indulgences, right?

Naftz: Yeah, so it's going to be a late start to the religious season of lent for many people; This is the second time I've experienced having Ash Wednesday fall on Valentine's Day. It's an interesting marketing conundrum.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Ryann Sinton with two King Cakes she’s made ready for the oven at Rheinlander Bakery in Old Town Arvada, Feb. 6, 2024. King Cake has its roots in Catholic festivals marking Epiphany; in the United States its also associated with Mardi Gras.

Thomas Whitfield:  Definitely! It's actually complicating my decorating plans this year because I committed to doing Mardi Gras decorations at my house. I had to pick between decorating for Mardi Gras or Valentine's Day this year. I went with Mardi Gras. of course.

Naftz: Yes. The colors of those holidays do not go well together. It's a clash to mix the Valentine's decor with the colors in the Mardi Gras decor. You have to just pick one and stick with it, really.

Thomas Whitfield: To your point, the Mardi Gras colors are also featured on the king cake: purple, green and gold.

Naftz: Yes. Gold represents power, purple represents justice and green represents faith.

Thomas Whitfield:  This is a family-owned German bakery in Arvada, Colorado. How did you get into the king cake-making business?

Naftz: We actually started when Hurricane Katrina struck the South in 2005. As everyone knows it was a huge catastrophe; a lot of businesses, citizens and people were affected. There's a sister city to Arvada in Louisiana called Meridian that had also sustained a lot of damage. So, it started out as kind of an outreach between the cities that Arvada was helping them out in other ways. We started making king cakes because, of course, the bakers there in Louisiana could not operate right after Katrina while they were trying to rebuild. It started out kind of slow, but we did it as a fundraiser for the Red Cross as well. And at that time we were sending it to the national Red Cross fund, because it was really fully going towards Katrina relief at that time. We said we would donate a percentage of all of our sales and it started out small. Back then, we would do maybe 100 king cakes. And every year it grew and grew to now we're expecting to do 2,000 probably this year, give or take. Now we still donate a percentage to the Red Cross, but now we typically will contribute to our local Colorado/Wyoming chapter of the Red Cross to keep the funds more locally dispersed. Depending on what's going on. There’s been years where there have been very huge national tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and we will shift the donations that way. We've kept that tradition going and it's just grown massively over the years.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mardi Gras masks and beads decorate a window at Rheinlander Bakery in Old Town Arvada, Feb. 6, 2024. The bakery makes King Cake at this time of year. King Cake has its roots in Catholic festivals marking Epiphany; in the United States its also associated with Mardi Gras.

Thomas Whitfield: What kind of reaction do you get when people see king cakes in your display case?

Naftz: Sometimes people are very confused, especially people who are from the South. They will look at them and kind of do a double take. Like, “Okay, that looks like a king cake, but I'm in a European bakery. That's a little strange.” People also tend to get very excited, especially when they see all the other swag, the beads and masks and we carry the Zapps brand of potato chips made in Louisiana in all of the flavors. I just had someone come in the other day who was saying that she just moved here from Louisiana and it was the first year that she didn't have a king cake on (the religious observance of) epiphany and she was so sad. She walked in not knowing that we have them and she was so excited to get one. We hear that all the time; people say that since they've left the South, our cakes are like the closest they've ever come to getting one that tastes like what they grew up with. Of course, that is always very flattering to hear and what we go for!

Thomas Whitfield: I think that is key because I have seen some concoctions that have been confusing to me here in Colorado, but we Louisiana natives do get excited when we feel like we have found a king cake that tastes like the closest to home.

Naftz: I have definitely seen some very creative, shall we say, “takes” on the king cake. I've gone to New Orleans a few times and tried King cake there. We have ordered it from the famous Haydel's Bakery there and some of the really famous places there, just to compare and see how theirs are and how they measure up to ours. We also like to make sure that we're kind of on the right path of keeping it authentic for people who have that expectation.

Thomas Whitfield:  Well, if your cakes are like I remembered, you all pass the test!

Naftz: That's great! Thank you.