Jenny Lee Bakery back in bread business

| Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

The circular cinnamon swirl bread with the Jenny Lee label is back.

Scott Baker and his father, Bernie, plan to restart the ovens Tuesday at their family's longtime bakery plant in McKees Rocks. Their new company, 5 Generation Bakers Inc., will turn out the specialty breads that were best-sellers when Jenny Lee Bakery had its own string of shops and supplied supermarkets in the Pittsburgh region.

Two varieties of the cylinder-shaped product -- with raisins, and without, but both covered in cinnamon and sugar -- will be sold in local grocery stores starting Feb. 16, Scott Baker said.

"Everywhere I've taken it, people love it," Baker said. While competitors, including Pepperidge Farms, make their own cinnamon breads, "The big boys don't want to touch this, because there's too much labor involved."

Jenny Lee went out of business in August 2008 after struggling for years with competition from supermarket bakery departments, a major fire at the McKees Rocks plant in 2006 and rising prices for flour and other ingredients.

"We couldn't survive the economy of 2008," said Baker, 38, who worked in the family business for most of his life, including 14 years in management.

He represents the fifth generation of Bakers to produce confections for the region. The original business, Michael A. Baker Bakery, opened in 1875 on Steuben Street in the West End.

After Jenny Lee closed, Baker thought of trying another field. But he opted instead to start a smaller business that would focus on making cinnamon swirl breads, to be delivered frozen to grocers and restaurants. The stores thaw and sell it.

Baker and his wife, Joelle, invested $20,000 from their savings. He registered the Jenny Lee name as a trademark. And 5 Generation Bakers signed a three-month lease for the McKees Rocks plant, a necessary step because of lingering tax issues, and the fact that the property still is in the former company's name.

"Ultimately, our goal is to be back in McKees Rocks and producing out of here" on a permanent basis, Baker said, but if need be, bakery plants in other regions could make the product.

Bridgeville-based Clover Hill Foods will distribute 5 Generation's breads, which will sell for $2.99 to $3.99 a loaf. Scott and Bernie Baker handed out samples on Tuesday at the company's invitation-only food industry show at Heinz Field.

"We stocked and sold it for years" when Jenny Lee made the cinnamon breads, said Bill Virgi, Clover Hill's president. "Out of all the manufacturers we deal with, there isn't anybody who makes a product like this. It tastes as if it came out of a scratch bakery."

Clover Hill delivers 6,000 items to grocers and other customers within a 130-mile radius from Pittsburgh.

The Bakers and their sole employee, Mike Lex, who lives across the street from the plant, plan to kick off production by baking 3,500 loaves of cinnamon bread next week using Jenny Lee's crimped, double-sided pans. Scott Baker said he hopes to hire six full-time workers in the company's first year in business.

Potential customers include independently owned Shop 'n Save, Foodland, Giant Eagle and other markets.

"The cinnamon, the round shape, the flavor -- it's just an excellent product," Tracy Benson, bakery manager for five Sorbara's Shop 'n Save stores, said after stopping at the Bakers' booth at the food show. The stores in McKees Rocks, Bethel Park, Heidelberg, South Fayette and Wilkins will carry the breads, she said.

"We used to sell it all the time, until the (plant) fire," said Mike Pace, bakery manager at another Shop 'n Save, at Century Square in West Mifflin.

"I tried to make it once, but I couldn't reproduce it."

Tony Egizio, director of food and beverage for King's Family Restaurants, said the 5 Generation bread will be used in a cinnamon French toast meal at the chain's North Versailles restaurant, starting March 1.

King's used to cook with, and even sell Jenny Lee breads. If customers at the test site like the 5 Generation product, it could be expanded to all 34 restaurants, he said.

"We're really excited about this, that they're back in business," Egizio said of the Bakers.

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