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Better Than Sliced Bread: The Wonder Bread Bakery

In Downtown by Caitlin L. Horton4 Comments

wonder-bread-memphis-signage

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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After standing empty for a couple years, the building is now potentially under contract with a developer.

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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!


Sources:

The Life and Death of Wonder Bread (Smithsonian)

Wonder Bread (Wikipedia)

Hostess Brands Closes Three Bakeries as Strike Spreads Across the U.S. (Commercial Appeal)

Wonder Bread Bakery Under Contract (Memphis Daily News)

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Caitlin L. Horton

Author of Memphis Type History & Brand Strategist at Caitlin L. Horton Brand Strategy
Partner-in-crime for entrepreneurs and community builders getting their message out with thoughtful design and marketing.

Latest posts by Caitlin L. Horton (see all)

Comments

  1. I remember when my mother would take us to the Wonder Bread store to get bread and sometimes if we were lucky we could get a treat or two. I love bread and I think it is because I love that smell of fresh bread. It is enough to make my mouth water. I need to find a place like the Wonder Bread store to get my bread because most of the time there are deals that they have on the bread.

  2. My father was Ed Barton who was marketing sales manger for wonder bread back in the early 1960,s &1970.s on Saturdays my dad would sometimes go to the office and work and he would take me along and I remember looking out his office window by the neon wonder sign across the street at A.S. Martins body shop watching them work on wreck cars. Some Saturdays I would go down to the garage area which at that time was inside the building and all route trucks parked inside the garage before moving to Jackson Ave ,Greg branch. All the big tractors at that time were Freightliner cab overs and parked on the back lot and if they had to come inside for work you had to remove the stacks to be able to get inside the garage. I remember one time we were walking thru the plant and my dad got a loaf of bread which had just come out the oven and that was the best bread ever still hot and had not even been sliced yet and the fresh smell was wonderful. Very painful to watch the building being torn down.
    Hope the neon sign can be put to good use someday for the history of the Wonder Bakery MEMPHIS

  3. Sorry to see this Bakery Gone. Was a bit of Memphis history. My grandparents had an apartment in the bakery at 400 Monroe; this was while the bakery was being built in the early 1920’s. My grandparents had lived in their first Memphis home, on South Pontotoc.
    I was told he had the first commercial telephone in Town; it connected his residence on S. Pontotoc to the Bakery @ 400 Monroe. My grandfather had come from Kansas where he had been a grain merchant. He, and an uncle, Sam McDonald started the Memphis Baking Company [ 1st in Memphis, Clarksdale, Ms . and Little Rock Ar.] They were the first, and largest commercial bakery, in town; They were noted for having a large fleet of electric delivery trucks, in the late 20’s. They were in merged, in the 1930’s, into the then-new, Continental Baking Company of New York.
    All three units of Memphis baking Company became Wonder Bread Bakeries. My uncle Sam McDonald, went to New York and served on the BOD at Continental. He retired in the 1950’s. My grandfather stayed in Memphis due to poor health. Continental went on, on a national level as Wonder Bread and later Hostess Products(?). The maker of special cakes, cup cakes, and other specialty sweet snacks. In the late 1960’s they were merged into the Hartford Companies
    ( Insurance) and then they went into the Ralston Purina Family, and I lost interest past that.

    In the 1970’s the area on the second floor of the Bakery {area of my grandparents old apartment) had been turned into the line that made Twinkies and Cup Cakes. [ That was a real sweet treat to visit heir old apartment!]
    When the Bakery was first built, their production was so large they had a spur line built from the then M&C RR line from their station between Jefferson and Adams Sts.
    That (M&C RR) was the station that was connected to the Southern Rwy line that served the Memphis Publishing Co, as well. The station, and line lasted into the 1970’s and was used in the 100th Anniversary of the Memphis and Charleston RR in 1960’s.

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