NAVARRE: This homegrown business may have baked the bread for the sandwich you ate today, or the doughnut you gobbled this morning.
On Monday, the commercial baking elite will gather in Chicago to give a top honor to the late Ernest Nickles, who worked at the bakery for seven decades, leading it for four of them.
Nickles, son of company founder Alfred Nickles, was key in growing the 104-year-old business into one of the largest family-owned bakeries in the country.
Seventeen family members — including five who work for the 1,600-employee company — will be in Chicago to celebrate Ernest Nickles’ induction into the Baking Hall of Fame.
Family members and competitors say bread man Ernest Nickles, who died in 1995, was no loafer.
“There were all kind of stories in the industry that he was at that bakery day and night,” said Paul Schwebel, of Schwebel Bakery, headquartered in Youngstown. “That bakery was his life.”
Nickles was 87 years old and attended a two-hour meeting the day before he died in 1995, noted David A. Gardner, Ernest Nickles’ nephew and current president and CEO.
“He worked seven days a week and called every night — every night — to check with the head shipper to make certain the trucks had left on time,” Gardner said.
Nickles joined the company in 1925, taking over as president and CEO when his father, Swiss immigrant Alfred Nickles, died in 1949.
Such tenacity helped Nickles transform the business from one focused on home delivery into a wholesale operation serving thousands of convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants and institutions.
Jim Trout, executive vice president at the local Acme Fresh Market chain, a longtime buyer of Nickles products, said he gives credit to Ernest Nickles and other family members “for really keeping the company vibrant.”
They’ve kept up with baking innovations and offered new products — such as 35-calorie-a-slice bread — Trout noted, adding to the tried and true lineup of breads, buns, cakes and doughnuts.
In 1994, a year before he died, Ernest Nickles oversaw the introduction of the bakery’s popular doughnut coated in chocolate. The company invested $300,000 in a chocolate melter and other equipment to make the new doughnut.
Mark Sponseller, one of Nickles’ three grandsons in the business and company senior vice president of finance, noted that many family-owned companies don’t survive beyond a second generation.
“Ernest took us over that big hurdle where we got into the third and fourth generation,” Sponseller said.
“Earnest Ernest” was what some dubbed him, said Ernie Brideweser, another grandson. Brideweser is a vice president who handles sales distribution.
Brideweser said while Nickles was “all-business,” he was also approachable, and knew everyone’s name in the Navarre bakery, adjacent to the administrative offices.
Alfred Nickles began the company as a small bakery in Navarre in 1909. Today, it has three bakeries (in Navarre, Lima and Martins Ferry) serving 300 commercial routes with customers in Ohio, western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.
In 1998, the company expanded the Navarre bakery, adding 65,000 square feet, while closing a bakery in Indiana.
The company installed equipment allowing for faster, more automated bread and bun production in Navarre. More than 100 loaves of bread a minute come off the line.
The company is taking advantage of the demise of the Hostess company, making more doughnuts and introducing an expanded line of rye bread, for example. The bakery also has hired some former Hostess workers.
Longtime employee George Bennington, one of about 500 workers at the Navarre bakery/home office, counts himself as lucky to have a unionized production job that, after more than 30 years, pays him far above minimum wage. Bennington said he is grateful the family ownership has continued.
“It’s tough to think what would have happened” if the company had been bought out, he said.
Fellow bakery production worker Kathy McKain, who has worked at the plant for 12 years and makes $13.75 an hour, agrees, noting the job has health benefits. “I tell the young people coming up [in the plant], stick with it. You want the health insurance, dental insurance.”
On Monday, the family will celebrate Ernest Nickles’ stick-to-it-iveness at the Baking Society of America’s annual BakingTech meeting. Nickles will join other industry luminaries in the Baking Hall of Fame, including the founders of Schwebel’s, Pepperidge Farms and Sara Lee.
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or email@example.com.