Yeast of Eden

Written by Jess Harter Category: History Issue: January 2013
Group Free

Arizona’s oldest company is still making dough the old-fashioned way. Just more of it.

From the outside, Holsum Bakery’s sprawling Phoenix facility shows the wear and tear of 66 years. The generic-looking, weather-beaten warehouse on South 23rd Avenue backs up to its two lifelines – the railroad tracks to the north and Interstate 17 to the east – and doesn’t even bother with an entrance sign. Only the scent of fresh-baked bread hints at the hubbub inside, where a marvel of state-of-the-art automation – mixers, ovens and packaging machines connected by a spider web of steel conveyors – transports thousands of loaves of bread destined for lunch pails and dinner tables throughout the state.

Since 2008, Holsum has operated as part of Flower Foods, a $3.5 billion food conglomerate headquartered in Georgia. Prior to the merger, however, the bakery was Phoenix’s longest-running privately-owned corporation, with a history stretching back to 1881. It started with Edward Eisele, a young man from Saulgau, Germany who was sent to London in 1872 at the age of 16 to learn the textile trade. Instead, Eisele found himself working a two-year stint aboard a ship as a cook and baker. “When he finally was allowed to get off the boat, he was in some place called Philadelphia,” Edward’s grandson, Ed Eisele, told Valley PBS station KAET in 2007. “And so at that point, he was 18 years old and draft age in Germany, so he wrote his father a letter to let him know, first of all, that he was alive, and secondly, that he was going to give this country a try.”

Eisele signed on as a cook with a wagon train heading West, eventually arriving in the newly designated Arizona Territory, where he took another job as a cook and baker for a team surveying the Arizona Canal. “When the work was completed in 1881, I guess the work force just scattered,” Ed Eisele recalled. “And he walked into Phoenix, and there was a gentleman who was also a German.” The man hired the young wayfarer to work at the Phoenix Bakery, which he had opened to serve the 1,500 residents of the newly-incorporated town. Within three years, Eisele bought the business at Washington and Center streets for $300. After another three years, he convinced his best friend, pharmacist Alfred Becker, to join him.

In the mornings, Eisele would bake not only bread, but also cakes, cookies and pies, and in the afternoon, he would sell his goods by carrying large baskets from door to door. He soon switched to making deliveries on bicycle, undoubtedly a chore on the then-unpaved Phoenix streets, and then with a horse-drawn carriage that grew to a fleet of seven by 1894. In 1910, gas-powered Model T cars took over the task – an industrial first for the Arizona Territory and perhaps the greatest thing that happened to the fledgling state until sliced bread. (Phoenix Bakery introduced that in 1931.) The company was also the first in the state to purchase radio and TV advertising (including sponsoring local broadcasts of the popular Lone Ranger radio program in the 1940s).

Eisele passed away in 1927, leaving Phoenix Bakery in the hands of his son, Lloyd, and Becker’s son, Charles – best friends who attended the University of Michigan together. In 1929, the pair made a series of decisions that would profoundly affect the bakery’s future. They shifted exclusively to wholesale, moving down the street to a much larger building at Washington and Seventh streets. They also purchased statewide rights to the Holsum brand, becoming part of a nationwide independent bakery cooperative. “What that allowed them to do is to compete against larger concerns,” explains Dick Pattengale, current vice president of sales for Holsum of Arizona. “These independent bakeries could come together, pool their resources, buying material, supplies, things like that.”

In 1946, Holsum moved into its current digs, which at the time was considered the best production facility in the country, near I-17 and McDowell Road. The company stopped making sweet goods that same year, choosing to concentrate on three brands of bread and buns – Holsum, Aunt Hattie’s, and Roman Meal. When grandson Ed Eisele, who had taken over as president in 1976 and owned all company shares by 1983, decided to merge with Flower Foods and step aside, Holsum acquired Arizona rights to a fourth brand, Nature’s Own. “The big thing for us was the launch of Nature’s Own,” says Pattengale, who’s been with the company for 27 years. “That was a game-changer. It’s the lead-selling soft-variety bread in the country.”

In addition to the four brands, Holsum provides buns for the majority of fast-food restaurants in Arizona, as well as the whole-wheat products for the majority of schools in the state. It also occasionally bids on three-month contracts for local supermarket brands and added a Tolleson production facility in 2001 to increase its output. In the 1890s, Edward Eisele was happy when Phoenix Bakery’s production hit a peak of 200 loaves a day. Today, Holsum’s 85-foot tunnel oven can yield that number in minutes. “It’s all about automation,” says Pattengale, who declined to give any other specific information on Holsum’s output or distribution due to the competitive nature of the bread business.

Asked what the company’s founder would say if he could see how his once-humble bakery has grown into a computerized bread-making Colossus, Pattengale pauses. “I think what he would say is there are things that are remarkably different and, at the same time, we’re still producing bread. You still have to mix it, you still have to bake it, you still have to cool it. The process hasn’t changed on how you make a loaf of bread.”

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Will Phoenix Bakery rise again?

After 130 years, there’s not much cooking at Phoenix Bakery. The Pioneer Living History Museum moved the shell of the original red-brick building to its north Phoenix campus in 1975, but plans to restore the historic bakery have languished. The museum hoped to raise $75,000 to reopen the bakery for the state’s Centennial celebration in February 2012, a date that later was extended to February 2013. However, the funds have not been secured, and the project’s future is uncertain. Today, the building consists of little more than unstable walls. Plans include a concrete slab to place it on, reinforcement of the walls, new glass for the front, and a new roof. Today, its original location at 7 W. Washington St. is marked by a bronze plaque in what’s left of Patriots Square Park, which was reduced significantly during construction of the CityScape development