Joseph Simmons

Joe Simmons (Photo: Carol Moye)

Joe Simmons (Photo: Carol Moye)

“You have any pies in there?” a woman called out from her car. “Sweet potato? There’s one left. And an apple and peach, uh-huh.”

Joe Simmons stood outside of his North Homewood Avenue bakery during an unseasonably warm September afternoon, fielding greetings from passers-by, neighbors and regulars who rely on his donuts, fruit turnovers, layer cakes and cupcakes to sweeten their days. In a neighborhood that’s lost many businesses over the years, Dana’s Bakery has been a steadfast fixture for nearly four decades.

“I’ve been here so long; I’m a staple,” Simmons said. “I’ve seen generations grow up. Adults stop in and say, ‘I remember you from when I went to Holy Rosary School around the corner,’ ” which has been closed for more than 20 years.

His start in the industry was random. When fresh out of McKeesport High School, he heard that the nearby Vienna Bakery Co. was hiring. Simmons hired on as a dishwasher for the company, which wholesaled breads and cakes to supermarkets and restaurants. “It was grunt work, but there were a lot of nice supervisors and they helped me move forward into better positions.” After about six years he moved on, working at retail bakeries across the region east of Pittsburgh. He credited that hands-on experience with teaching him the ins and outs of baking, customer service and running a business. Eventually, he joined West Mifflin’s G&K Bakery, purchasing sweets there that he would take to a Hill District location for resale.

“I began to feel like, ‘I can do this. Let me find my own location.’” Many fellow bakers along the way donated equipment and display cases. One passed along a donut fryer, while the now-shuttered Stagno’s Bakery in Larimer gave Simmons an oven – both of which are still going strong.

At age 35, with a young, growing family, soon he was up and running, naming the bakery after his daughter Dana, a toddler at that time.

There’s little downtime for a business owner. Simmons workday has long started around 1:30 a.m., and he said he’s long since become accustomed to getting by on about four hours of sleep each night. For a time, the business weighted on him, literally: he ballooned to 330 pounds. He turned to Weight Watchers, shed more than 100 pounds, and was such a model participant that the company hired him. For several years – while continuing to run the bakery – he’d travel to meetings with a scale, conducting weekly weigh-ins and encouraging participants to take care of themselves and reach their goals. Now 73 and fit, Simmons shows no sign of slowing down. From his home in East Hills, he often bikes to work. His wife, Sandy, has added a pushcart of tropically flavored ices under a bright yellow and pink umbrella, which is becoming “a business in and of itself,” he remarked.

He relaxes by fishing and hunting, usually for small game like squirrel and rabbits. Son Brandon, 35, one of his six children, often joins him hunting, as well as working at the bakery. Brandon may take the business over eventually – but Simmons has no retirement plans.

“I’ll be here until the man upstairs calls me home, if they need a top baker up there.”