The Wonder Bread bakery was a Memphis icon for both sight and smell. Located at 400 Monroe Avenue, the bakery once sent the warm, inviting scent of baking bread wafting over one of Memphis’ most unique neighborhoods, The Edge. The now-vacant 184,393-square-foot building features a charming mix of hand-painted and neon signage.
The Memphis facility was built in 1921, the same year that Taggart Baking Company launched the Wonder Bread brand. Wonder Bread was certainly different from all other breads at the time. The loaf size was half a pound larger than others, and beginning in the 1930s, it was the first to come sliced (except for two years during WWII due to the steel shortages). But most of all, it was white – symbolizing purity of ingredients and automated manufacturing.
Wonder Bread flew off the shelves because of its bright packaging, uniform color, and a continuous introduction of innovative new products. One such innovation was adding vitamins and minerals to bread in the 40s, hence all the ads featuring weight-lifting and talking 8s. In another industry first, the whitest of all white bread introduced whole grain white bread with the slogan “Wonder Made with Whole Grain White.”
Tony McNatt remembers twice monthly visits to the bakery with his grandfather:
When I was eight years old my grandfather and I would take his 1970 Chevy pickup with no air and no radio to Wonder Bread at least twice a month to pick up all the old bread and cupcakes. We would get a 6-foot bed full of this nice smelling cargo.
We drove from the bakery down to Mississippi on Stateline Road where my grandfather kept his hogs. We would back the truck up to the pin and with pitchforks we pitched all that great smelling hog food into the pin, wrappers and all. The pigs eat every bit of it. I’m now 49 years old and my grandfather has passed but I do miss the time spent together.
Ginger Colquitt recalls late night visits to the Memphis Wonder Bread bakery in the early 60s:
It was usually several girls around 16-17 years old riding around at night on the weekend and we would pass by the bakery. There were large windows on the front and because it was lit up brightly, you could see inside. The brightly lit building was a contrast to the dark night and practically invited us to come inside. On later trips, we planned ahead and bought butter.
I remember the loaves of bread on a line rolling out of the ovens, freshly baked, unsliced, very hot and mmmm… oh the smell…. so good and yeasty! We cut open the end and stuffed the whole stick of butter into the hot bread. Then we would tear off pieces, with butter dripping – napkins were definitely needed. I remember loving the first taste but feeling, on occasion, after a few more bites, a little queasy afterwards.
The workers were nice and attentive and I think enjoyed our late night visits. And they sent each of us home with a free loaf of freshly baked hot bread! A wonderful experience!
In recent decades, the future of Wonder Bread has been uncertain. Workers began striking in November 2012 at both the bakery and distribution center over new contracts from Hostess that cut pay and benefits. Some wanted to protect their pensions. Others wanted to put Hostess out of business in hopes that a company with a brighter future would acquire it.
In 2012, Hostess famously when bankrupt, sending Twinkie lovers everywhere into a frenzy. After being sold to Flower Foods in 2013, the smell of fresh baked bread stopped wafting through the air of Downtown for good. The Wonder Bread brand continues on without the Memphis bakery, although it is having to keep up with the trend of consumer preference for whole grain and wheat breads.
Mike Henderson worked in the Memphis office back in 1993, when Wonder Bread was owned by Continental Baking Co. a division of Ralston Purina out of St Louis. He recalls how delicious the fresh baked goods were in comparison to what you would buy off the shelf.
“At the Memphis facility, at times a line worker would bring a box of caramel rolls fresh off the line. Sooooo good. Best I can recall, any cakes we could eat were available for purchase but they were so fresh, as they were baked right there whether when I was at the Memphis, St Louis or KC facility. The freshness of a newly baked product versus one, say, bought from a vending machine or grocery store was beyond compare.”
Mike was always impressed by the automation process of making Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes. And like many other Memphians, Mike cannot speak about the bakery without recalling the smell. He returns once a year to get his fill of music and food, although he will no longer be able to catch the scent of freshly baked bread wafting over Downtown.
After standing empty for a couple years, the building is now potentially under contract with a developer.
Want more Wonder Bread history? Check out this episode of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, where they explore the history of bread manufacturing – lots of vintage commercials at that link too!
Do you have a memory of Wonder Bread to share? Tell us in the comments below!