The History of Baker Family Baking
Recorded by Scott Baker
The baking traditions of the Baker family began in the mid 1800’s when Michael A. Baker immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young teen. Originally named “Becker”, Michael changed his name to “Baker” to be more American. It wasn’t too long after this that his lifelong trade would also become “baker”.
Michael founded the first bakery in our lineage, the Michael A. Baker Bakery, in 1875 at 25 Steuben Street in the West End of Pittsburgh. Initially a retail bakery, Michael expanded his services to “door-to-door” delivery. Eventually Michael’s sons joined the business and the name soon evolved to Michael Baker & Sons.
Michael’s seven sons had big aspirations. They continued to grow the business throughout the Western Pennsylvania region and soon became the largest bakery wholesaler in the state. Upon their father’s retirement, the bakery name changed again, this time to “The Seven Baker Brothers Bakery”. Their success could be measured by their unique marketing skills establishing the “Wonder Baked” product line (eventually “borrowed” by the baker’s of Wonder Bread), creating Felix the Wonder Cat and Sic’em the Wonder Dog, and flying the maiden voyage of “The Spirit of Pittsburgh” – a great publicity stunt featuring the nation’s only flying bakery vehicle.
At the height of their success, the Baker Brothers grew their bakery to 125 delivery vehicles – trucks and horse-drawn carriages – and over 400 employees. A state of the art baking facility was built on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in the West End to house this grand enterprise. They delivered their quality baked products as far away as Youngstown to Erie to Weirton and to the edges of Philadelphia County.
During this time, the Seven Brother’s were also busy growing their families. My great-grandfather, Nick Baker was a twin and the third born son of Michael Baker. Nick had a large family of his own, fathering 9 children with his wife Theresa May Baker. Nick’s children were a very ambitious lot themselves. The oldest, Paul, founder of Jenny Lee Bakery; Amelia, proprietor of Hartner’s Restaurant for over 50 years; Catherine, two time serving Treasurer of Pennsylvania and our state’s first Lieutenant Governor; John, a world renowned artist to name just a few.
Nick’s children were the third generation of the Baker family in the baking industry and many of their cousins, like them, continued in the family heritage: Karn’s Bakery and McKees Rocks Bread Company and others. This precedent was set by Paul in 1938, when despite the continued success of The Seven Baker Brother Bakery, he and cousin Bernard McDonald founded Jenny Lee Bakery in the heart of Pittsburgh Diamond Market, now known as Market Square. Initially, Paul sold Seven Baker Brother’s products out of his retail store. Within four months of his new business, Paul began baking his own line of quality products that eventually required the acquisition of his second store – and main baking location – in McKees Rocks. This expansion took place in 1941.
Now operating two successful locations, Paul continued to expand Jenny Lee Bakery. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Jenny Lee added two additional locations in McKees Rocks as well as several stores in neighboring communities. Paul’s success in the 40’s was matched with the demise of The Seven Baker Brother’s Bakery which ceased operations in the mid-1940’s. An operator of tradition, Paul continued to produce and sell many popular Seven Baker Brother’s products, such as Seven Baker Brother’s Raisin Filled Cookies, Devil Dogs and crimped cinnamon raisin bread. These products remained popular throughout the decades and maintained sales for Jenny Lee as recently as 2008.
Jenny Lee maintained successful growth in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s as Paul’s three sons joined him in the business and eventually grew to 14 retail locations throughout the Pittsburgh Region. By early 1974, Jenny Lee had grown to 14 retail locations. Paul would retire in 1978 and hand the business over to his three sons: Jim, Rich and Bernie.
As the decades passed by, so did Jenny Lee’s success. The 1980’s presented many challenges for the retail baking industry as the marketplace changed and people changed their shopping behaviors. In response to this decline in business, Jenny Lee responded by closing several retail stores. Also at this time, the fifth generation of the Baker family was discovering their own ambitions with several choosing careers in baking. John Pockl with Karn’s and eventually Bethel Bakery, Nick Hartner with Mancini’s Bakery, Reed Baker helping to develop the McKees Rocks Bread Company and Scott Baker joining the family traditions at Jenny Lee Bakery.
The challenges that Jenny Lee faced soon caused tension in the business. In 1992, upon his son Scott’s graduation from the American Institute of Baking, Bernie set out to find his own baking fortunes. Bernie and Scott explored many vacant bakeries and thriving businesses which to invest in and create their own identity. When Bernie’s brother’s chose not to buy out his share of Jenny Lee, he instead decided to buy out their shares. In 1994, this transaction commenced and Jenny Lee was now solely owned by Bernie Baker. His son Scott, upon his graduation from the University of Pittsburgh in December of 1994 soon joined the business managing retail sales.
On Thanksgiving Day 2006, the bakery experienced a devastating fire that nearly wiped out the second floor offices and candy production area. This fire forced the bakery to close for more than 4 months and miss two major holidays. After major renovation, Jenny Lee Bakery was able to reopen in April of 2007. But as a result of this fire and downtime, Jenny Lee lost more than half of its wholesale business as well as many retail shoppers who were forced to go elsewhere. Sadly, due to these challenges and a dismal economy, Jenny Lee Bakery closed its doors forever on August 16, 2008.
Out of a desire to continue in the Baker Family baking traditions, 5 Generation Bakers was founded in June of 2009. 5 GB is a commercial manufacturer of frozen wholesale products. Our line will initially consist of simply two products: gourmet cinnamon swirl and cinnamon raisin breads. The only similarity to Jenny Lee Bakery will be our commitment to producing only the finest baked products and THIS is a Baker Family tradition.
Having baked our first loaf of bread on February 9, 2010, the next generation of Baker Family bakeries is underway. In our first two months of business, we have produced over 45,000 loaves of gourmet cinnamon swirl breads. Our products can be found throughout Western Pennsylvania is stores like Shop’N Save, Foodland, Kuhn’s and Giant Eagle. There are many smaller chains and independently owned stores that carry our products too. You can even find our breads on the menu at all King’s Family Restaurant where they use it as the bread in their French toast.