Through the Eyes of a Union Member: The Slow Demise of an American Baking Company
Thank you Brother Scott for sharing your story.
“Maybe someone out there should hear the real true story about Interstate Bakeries Corporation/ Interstate Brands/ IBC/ Hostess Brands/ Wonder Bread/ … whatever you want to call it. There has been so many confusing statements about this corporation and its union employees in the last eight years, and very few of them really look at the depth of the real truth of where this corporation and its mismanagement started.
“I was one year old when my Father moved from Chico to Sacramento, California to take a job as a transport driver for “Blue Seal Bread” after 4 years of working for “Sunbeam Bread” in Northern California. The year was 1955, and the “Blue Seal” company was owned by Interstate Bakeries Corporation out of Kansas City.
IBC Closes Blue Seal
“All through my younger years I heard my Father tell me just how mismanaged and screwed up this company was. He used to tell me time after time that the company wasted more money than they were worth. The bakery went through well over a dozen plant managers in the 12 years he worked there. In June of 1967 the bakery closed, which at that point in time was one of many that Interstate had closed across the country.
“These Union workers put their entire lives’ into this company. One man that had been a victim of Interstate bakery closures all over the country for years was so distraught he went home, dowsed himself down with gasoline, and set himself afire.
“After the “Blue Seal” closure my Father was recommended by his Union to move to Oakland, where at that time, Interstate owned Weber’s Bakeries. In early 1969, the Weber’s plant in Oakland closed, due to the same problems the “Blue Seal” plant had. By this time my Father had enough, he drove down the freeway and into a bakery he watched being built in late ’67 –Colombo French Bread. He talked with the president of the company and had a job driving the next day. Weeks later he told me, “I am working for the best people in the world here,” He absolutely loved it. This small French Bread bakery was owned by a group of Italians that had been making “Sour Dough French Bread” years prior to World War II.
Summer Work Launches Career
“In 1972, my Father asked me if I wanted to take a summer job at the bakery. The company at the time was growing by leaps and bounds and had merged with Toscana to get their flour cheaper. Not being Italian, it wasn’t all that easy to get in but they needed a machine operator and I was mechanically inclined. In two weeks, I was trained on every slicing and wrapping machine they had. In the next six weeks, I was trained to take the Foreman’s positions of all three shifts when they were either sick or on vacation. Here I was only 17 years old, and not yet out of high school.
“The work was enormous, and extremely strenuous, especially during holidays. You hit the floor running, and it was not uncommon to put in a 12 to 14 hour day. But the people had something there that later on when I got older, I would finally recognize. It was what had made that company so successful. It was pride. Pride in themselves, and pride in their work. Failure in this place was not an option. If we failed at anything, we couldn’t show our face at work the next day. When you worked for Colombo, you worked as a family. The old Italian owners worked side by side with you, and you had as much care and pride for that product, in how it looked, tasted, and how it was presented, as everyone else there.
“In the next six years production seemed to double, and by 1978 we added on a huge addition with a new packaging department, new loading dock with 9 dock doors, a thrift store, and an 8,000 square foot freezer. By this time we had three ovens cranking out over 130 thousand units per day—not bad for those days, with well over 100 varieties. My line had 16 hours of sliced bread, with seven different varieties.
“In 1980, my Father was diagnosed with cancer and retired from Colombo six months later. He loved his job and the people there. He told me when he retired, “You stay here and you’ll always have a job. When you work for a corporation like I did for Interstate, things just get shitty.”
“Around 1983, the last of the Italian owners sold out to a group of San Francisco lawyers that made the corporation San Francisco French Bread. We acquired one of the buildings behind us, put in a tunnel and opened a new distribution center for our transports and route trucks. At this point in time, our business was absolutely skyrocketing, with new accounts like Kraft Foods that would distribute our product under their name all across the country. Our Hoagie Roll and two- pound double pack Sour Sliced accounts with Costco were booming. At the same time, the National Sales Department that was formed was in its beginning stages of shipping our Brown and Serve frozen products nationwide. Our fresh sales owned the Bay Area and the entire restaurant business. I remember when Spengers Fish Grotto put in an order for 1,500 loaves of Mario for just one day of business. But at the same time this was all happening, I was seeing something else that would eventually play into the coming future of this company.
“People started to change, the hiring system was handled by the corporation, and a completely different breed of management was coming in. Ingredients and machinery started to change, along with fermentation times, all of which played a big part on the unique way the original sour dough was made. Time was money, and both started to prevail over quality. Kraft failed, we were producing so fast the bakery had a hard time making a uniformed loaf of bread. The new tunnel ovens could turn out product twice as fast, but the quality of the sour sandwich and dinner rolls (steak and baby rolls) which made us so popular started to diminish.
“In 1990 I got out of the bakery end (still staying in the Bakers Union), and took a job as a freezer/dock manager with the National Sales Department. By 1992, we were shipping nearly 100 varieties of Brown and Serve French bread and rolls around the world. I have to give credit to one of the original owners who stayed and managed this department, and the fantastic sales people we had.
The Unthinkable, IBC
“By 1994, we acquired two large offsite freezers and were shipping out over 30,000 cases of Brown and Serve products a week. Our National sales people had found us accounts with some of the largest grocery retail and restaurant chains in the southern and eastern states of the country. The bakery was running flat out 24/7 and couldn’t keep up with the demand.
“We then had Parisian San Francisco and Colombo Sacramento making product until they couldn’t keep up either. Then the unthinkable happened, Interstate Brands acquired us, and within a year it all started to turn around.
“Ingredients and recipes changed again, then the fermentation process and its times changed again, with emphasis on time and money, the once famous Sour Dough taste was gone. Managers were put in that really knew nothing about Sour Dough at all. The thirty five thousand or so sliced bread that was produced dwindled down to five thousand. Because of poor management, or lack of management in that area, the production and packaging departments became intolerable. Costly mistakes were made by both departments and management refused to correct it.
“Then around 1998, IBC closed our corporate office on Edgewater Drive in Oakland and fired all of our National Sale people. That put the final nail in our coffin. I complained for six years to plant managers, to operations managers, one after another about where the business was going until one day the president of the company stood up at a meeting and told me “this is our sandbox and we will play in it the way we want to.”
Writing on the Wall
“I saw the hand writing on the wall, after 32 years of working in one of the best places, with some of the finest people in the world, IBC was doing the same thing with me as they had done to my Father 50 years ago. In September of 2004, IBC filed bankruptcy, I knew my job would be next as the last of our offsite freezers were closed at this point, no sales staff left, and we were shipping out less than five thousand cases a week.
“In December of 2004 I got out, like my father before me, I said that was enough. A few months before I retired, Colombo in Sacramento closed. I heard Wonder took it over. Eight months after I retired, Parisian SF closed.
“It takes a long time and one hell of a lot of work to build a company that was as profitable as Oakland’s Colombo French Bread Bakery was. But it took very little time to run it into the ground.”
“I knew all of those people at Parisian, I was on the phone with them every day ordering product for our frozen shipping department. They were some of the hardest working people I ever had the privilege of working with. Every single person I ever worked with was dedicated to their jobs. What this company did to my union brothers and sisters and a string of proud bakeries – that is a horrible story.