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Julia O'Malley: Spenard bakery rises again, with a new personality

Julia O'Malley
Franz just launched snack cakes in the Pacific Northwest that are made in Seattle and will be available in Anchorage stores in about a week. Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.
Bill Roth
Sean Ramich tends to loaves of bread that are ready to be sliced and packaged at the Franz Bakery off Spenard Road in Anchorage on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Franz Bakery put their first locally produced loaf of bread on a store shelf on May 15, 2013, about six months after the Sunrise Bakery closed its doors.
Bill Roth
Sean Ramich tends to loaves of bread that are ready to be sliced and packaged at the Franz Bakery off Spenard Road in Anchorage on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Franz Bakery put their first locally produced loaf of bread on a store shelf on May 15, 2013, about six months after the Sunrise Bakery closed its doors.
Bill Roth
Franz Bakery general manager Larry Brandt with fermenting bread on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Franz Bakery put their first locally produced loaf of bread on a store shelf on May 15, 2013, about six months after the Sunrise Bakery closed its doors.
Bill Roth
The Franz Bakery is located at 2248 Spenard Road in Anchorage. Franz Bakery put their first locally produced loaf of bread on a store shelf on May 15, 2013, about six months after the Sunrise Bakery closed its doors at that location.
Bill Roth

This just in: there's a new Twinkie in town.

It's not a Twinkie, technically. It's a golden, cream-filled, oblong "Creme Cake." It might be called the anti-Twinkie, because it's designed to take a bite out of the Hostess classic's sales. It will likely be just a little bit cheaper. And, some people say, it tastes better.

The anti-Twinkie is the work of Franz Bakery, the company that took over the Sunrise Bakery in Spenard last year after Sunrise's parent company, Hostess Brands, fell into bankruptcy. The snack cakes are baked at a facility in Seattle and should start appearing on Anchorage shelves this week. Also available: chocolate, cream-filled cupcakes with fudgey icing and a conspicuously familiar white swirl.

The cakes are part of the company's new strategy in Alaska. Franz, (pronounced like "hands" not like "bronze") wants to do what Hostess did, only better. It also wants to do a lot of what Hostess didn't, including appealing to health-conscious consumers and people who don't eat wheat at all.

"(Hostess) didn't react to the market, they didn't react to trends," Larry Brandt, the plant's general manager told me, just before photographer Bill Roth and I began a tour of the bread-baking operation last week. "They were about white bread and that's what they wanted to do."

Sunrise Bakery operated in Spenard since 1951. When it closed in 2012, it laid off almost all of its 100 or so employees. The closure also ended long business relationships with all of Anchorage's grocery stores, most fast-food sandwich restaurants, the hospitals and the Anchorage School District. It was the state's only large wholesale bakery and one of Alaska's largest manufacturers.

Brandt, a second-generation Hostess employee, has been at the Anchorage facility more than 25 years. His job now is capturing back all the market share that belonged to his previous employer. The snack cake market is just a sliver of it. The big deal is bread and buns, he said.

As we descended onto the bakery floor-- all of us wearing red hair nets-- Brandt explained how the formulas for Franz breads differed from Hostess. I watched a machine spit out a twin mattress sized ball of dough, called a sponge, into a trough, which was wheeled into a warm, humid room for its first rise.

Franz formulas have more whole grains, more ingredients in general and fewer fillers, Brandt said. Hostess formulas grew increasingly diluted over time while loaf prices remained constant, Todd Andrew, the bakery's production manager, who also worked for both companies, told me. It saved money for a struggling company, but brought down the quality of the product.

Possibly in part because Franz is headquartered in food-obsessed Portland, the company also offers a wider variety of breads than Hostess, targeting customers who are not white bread buyers. Anchorage shoppers can now find Franz's organic line, including the Rogue River 24 and San Juan Island organic loaves on store shelves. These breads are meant to compete with the grainier, seedier brands like Dave's Killer Bread (also Portland-based). The company also has a line of gluten-free breads that will soon appear in Anchorage, Brandt said. Like the snack cakes, the organic breads are not baked locally. Gluten-free breads require a dedicated gluten-free facility, where there is no flour in the air or on the equipment.

Our media tour was itself a shift. Hostess didn't allow media in the bakery for at least a decade, Brandt said. Franz allows public tours. Franz has also encouraged the Anchorage bakery to participate in public events. Employees have handed out grilled cheese sandwiches and cookies several times since the change in ownership, something that didn't happen before, Brandt said.

After the sponges rise and fill the troughs, they goes into a mixing machine that adds the grains and seeds and other ingredients. I watched the mixer spit the dough into a cutter. The cutter extruded tidy floured dough balls onto a conveyor belt. From there, the balls tumbled into pans for a ride into the oven.

Spenard bakery-made breads include the classic long thin white and wheat loaves as well as a variety of seedier, wider loaves, like Lake Washington Honey Oat & Nut.

The bakery is now at about the same staffing level it was when it closed, Brandt said. A little less than half of the employees previously worked for Hostess. One of the reasons for Hostess Brands' demise was a failed negotiation with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. Sunrise Bakery workers were not represented by that union. Anchorage workers voted to accept Hostess's terms.

The Franz bakery workers are non-union, David Roys, the bakery's food safety manager told me. But, he said, they are paid union-level wages. At the time the bakery closed, workers there made between $12 and $23 an hour. Now they make between $15 and $25. They also have health insurance and retirement.

"The morale has changed a lot for the better, just because Hostess was in bankruptcy off and on for eight years," Brandt said. "There was a lot of stress for employees not knowing whether or not that next pay check was going to come."

The warm loaves rumbled out of the oven and rode about a mile on cooling belts that zig-zagged across the ceiling. From there, they went though a metal detector, then into the slicer. Finally, they slid into bags, headed for Costco.

About 10 percent of the bread that goes into Anchorage stores comes back to the bakery because it isn't sold, Brandt told me. That bread ends up at the bakery outlet stores or goes to charities. Any of the loaves that are misshapen or rejected for quality reasons head to a pig farm in Wasilla. Right now the bakery can kick out as many as 70 loaves a minute. In a day, it makes about 60,000 units, including loaves and bags of rolls.

Brandt estimates that the Anchorage bakery is doing about 80 percent of the business it was when Hostess closed it, but he's optimistic it'll surpass it.

"There isn't a day that goes by that we aren't picking up another customer," he said.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

 


By JULIA O'MALLEY
jomalley@adn.com