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Pittsburgh's brands once were talk of the town

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Sunday, March 20, 2005
 

Just a few decades ago, Pittsburghers could move through an average day using lots of local products.

Two slices of toasted Town Talk bread for breakfast, for instance, with a glass of Menzie milk. An Isaly's chipped ham sandwich for lunch, with a Heinz pickle on the side.

After work, a Duke beer on the front porch. Vimco pasta for dinner, cooked in an Alcoa pot. Then a Clark bar or Isaly's Klondike for a bedtime snack.

Many of those brands that grew into household staples through the 20th century still exist, but the factories that made them left the Pittsburgh region years ago after the owners merged, sold to other companies, or moved production elsewhere. Others, such as Menzie and Duquesne Brewing, went out of business and remain fond memories.

"There is this whole sense of the chaining of America -- local brands have gone away because they just can't compete with the huge, national chains," said Jeff Inman, a marketing professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Braun's Town Talk is in the midst of a vanishing act. Loaves of the white bread, along with hamburger buns and other products, were baked on the North Side until 1989. Interstate Bakeries Corp., of Kansas City, Mo., acquired the brand about 10 years ago and moved production from Philadelphia to Akron, Ohio.

For now, the bags still say Town Talk, but the regional name will be dropped at some point, and more loaves of the company's nationally known Wonder Bread will appear on Western Pennsylvania store shelves. Interstate has used the same recipe for both white breads for a long time, anyway.

Walt Salachup, of Ross, worked for Braun's for 23 years before the bakery closed, and recalls when most Pittsburghers wanted nothing but Town Talk bread.

"They would try to bring in other breads, and they wouldn't sell," he said.

Pittsburghers' loyalties to certain brands were based on familiarity and sometimes a well-known story of a young entrepreneur.

David Clark, a 16-year-old Irish immigrant, started a candy factory in the late 1800s in two back rooms of a house in Allegheny City. By the mid-20th century, the D.L. Clark Candy Co. was producing more than a million Clark and other candy bars a day at a factory close to the original location, in the neighborhood by then known as the North Side.

Swiss cheese maker William Isaly started a dairy business in the 19th century in Ohio that grew into a regional retailing franchise, selling lunch meats, cheeses and ice cream across eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. A plant on the Boulevard of the Allies in Oakland opened in 1929, followed by retail stores in dozens of neighborhoods that sold Skyscraper cones and other favorites.

Henry J. Heinz, born in the Birmingham section of the South Side, formed a company to produce and sell bottled horseradish in 1869, expanding later into the famed "57 varieties" and the company's first permanent factory in 1893 on the North Side. The food giant's local manufacturing operations were sold to Del Monte in 2002.

People tend to form attachments to things made close by, whether it's a candy bar or a bottle of ketchup. "There is a nostalgia component when you're talking about a local brand," Inman said, "so to have it go away is a sense of loss."

Certain brands capture moments in childhood for those who grew up in the mid-20th century.

Grade school students once turned in money to their teachers in small Menzie envelopes, to pay for the containers of milk passed out during the daily "milk break." McKeesport-based Menzie was one of the region's biggest dairies and made deliveries to stores, homes and schools before going bankrupt in 1976.

Some companies are remembered, too, for especially painful exits from the region.

Many of the 110 workers who lost their jobs when Braun's closed founded the City Pride Bakery with help from government financing in 1992 in Lawrenceville. But the new bakery went under two years later, after a buyout by Uniontown businessman Michael Carlow and deep financial losses.

The former Nabisco plant on Penn Avenue in East Liberty has been vacant since Bake-Line Group of Oak Brook, Ill., closed its bakery operation there suddenly in 2004, ending jobs for 290 workers. Nabisco had operated the two-block-long plant from 1918 to 1998.

Isaly's Pittsburgh plant closed in 1978, and the chain changed hands several times in the 1970s and 1980s. One by one, the retail stores closed. Klondike production moved first to Hanover, York County, and then to Clearwater, Fla. Klondikes are made today by Dutch food giant Unilever, which also makes the Breyer's and Ben & Jerry's brands.

The Clark Candy Co. moved in the mid-1980s to O'Hara, and was acquired in 1991 by Carlow, whose empire eventually collapsed due to a check-kiting scheme and operating losses. The New England Confectionery Co. bought the company's assets in 1999 and moved production to Boston.

"Manufacturing has gone through a tremendous amount of consolidation. Some plants have moved, and Pittsburgh is certainly not unique in that respect," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group. Losing a brand's factory "hurts in terms of hometown pride, but the real issue is what is happening to the jobs, is the headquarters being kept and is the quality of the product being maintained?"

Vimco and its pasta plant in Collier -- including living quarters on top of the factory for the Viviano family -- were sold to Borden Inc. in 1985. Borden did maintain the operation for a while before closing the plant in 1991 and moving production of Vimco spaghetti, lasagna and other products elsewhere.

Many times, as in Town Talk's case, a company that acquires a local brand and moves it wants to blend it into its similar national label to promote in all its markets.

And while common themes, such as consolidation and lower work force costs, figure into plant shutdowns here, the story is a little different every time.

Manufacturing jobs accounted for 32 percent of the region's jobs in 1970, above the national average then of about 25 percent. Now the national average is around 15 percent, Hoffman said, and the Pittsburgh region's figure is 12 or 13 percent.

"There is no one reason that these companies left, but let's remember what we still have," Hoffman said, such as the Heinz factory. "I know it's Del Monte now, but they are a pretty big presence. We still have PPG and Alcoa. There's not as much manufacturing, but their headquarters is still here."

 

 
 


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