It’s not every day that a man’s death spurs a nationwide wave of nostalgia, but it would be an understatement to say that Entenmann’s has a strong fan following for its baked goods. So, when Charles Entenmann, who spearheaded his family bakery’s growth into the nationally recognized brand it is today, died on Feb. 24 at age 92, everyone was suddenly jonesing for their favorites among the company’s cookies, cakes, pies, muffins and more.
Entenmann’s has been pushing pastries for over 120 years, but there was certainly no indication from its early beginnings that it would become so woven into the fabric of American life. The company was founded in New York City in 1898 by Charles’ grandfather William Entenmann, who had learned how to bake from his father in Stuttgart, Germany.
When he emigrated to the United States he worked at various bakeries until he got the financing together to open his own bakery in Brooklyn. Entenmann’s eventually moved to Long Island in the early 1900s and offered home delivery of its baked goods via horse drawn carriage.
William Entenmann Jr. eventually took over for his father and grew the business. And when William Jr. died in 1951, he left the bakery to his wife Martha and their sons Robert, Charles, and William III. It was these heirs – with Charles Entenmann leading the way – who turned the business into something more than just a local favorite.
Getting into grocery stores
The bakery was already popular in the New York area when they inherited it. Frank Sinatra was a regular customer of Entenmann’s bakery – he placed a weekly order for crumb cake in the early 1950s. But the family had a broader vision of success.
Change was incremental at first. First, Charles Entenmann and his mother made the decision to stop baking bread to focus on pastries and cakes. Next, the company phased out home delivery in 1959 in favor of supplying their baked goods to local grocers and to supermarket chains.
A few years later in 1961, a breakthrough came: the Entenmann family invented the cake box with the clear window in it that is used by bakeries across the world today. The idea behind that cake box was simple. The Entenmanns believed people were more inclined to buy products they could see.
With the pieces in place, over the next few years, Charles Entenmann took the regional family bakery and turned it into a national brand. He also played an integral role in automating the bakery with a computer controlled system that poured ingredients into the vats for mixing.
As the company grew, this automation didn’t just help keep costs down. It also ensured consistency, which Charles Entenmann viewed as the key to the company’s success.
“We survived where so many other fine baking houses vanished because we stuck to quality and devised ways to control quality,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1976. “The two-millionth piece of cake must not only be good — it must be as good as the first.”
It’s easy to see how this consistency has helped the company retain its popularity even today. For example, Entenmann’s has been selling its All-Butter Loaf Cake since it opened its doors in 1898. The company has sold more than 700 million of these loaf cakes. Or consider the case of the Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookie. It debuted in 1972 when the Entenmann’s brand went national and today still uses the same recipe – so if someone was in kindergarten in 1972 and had Entenmann’s cookies in their school lunch, that same cookie today would take the now 50-something back in time with a bit of nostalgia.
Beyond the family firm
Though the baked goods haven’t changed much over time, the company’s owners have. The family took the company public in 1976, saying the move was necessary for tax planning, but retained 80% of the shares. Then the Entenmann family sold it to pharmaceutical company Warner-Lambert in 1978 for $233 million (which is equal to $1 billion today when adjusted for inflation), at which point Charles Entenmann retired.
It changed hands a few more times after that through various acquisitions and mergers, but since 2002, the company has been owned by Bimbo Bakeries USA, a division of Mexican conglomerate Groupo Bimbo.
Bimbo also owns Sara Lee, Oroweat, and Thomas’, but Entenmann’s is Bimbo Bakeries USA’s largest U.S. baked goods manufacturer. And things have been looking good for the baked goods industry overall lately. People turned to comfort foods during the pandemic, and now, with social distancing giving way to normal gatherings, celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings are back on. This means more cake! In the baking industry as a whole, sales of cake in 2021 went up 11% over 2020 and 13% over 2019.
What Entenmann’s itself has achieved in its over a century in business first as a family company and then as a grocery store stalwart owned by a larger entity is quantifiable – and not just in cash. According to the company’s website, if you laid the 780 million donuts the bakery has made end to end, they would wrap around the world two and a half times. Also, nearly 200 million pounds of apples have been used to make Entenmann’s apple pies. That’s more than 5,000 apples every day for the past 100 years.
Of course it might not be the perfect comfort food for everyone. The bakery has maintained a wholesome image through turbulent times, but after his father’s death, Charles Entenmann Jr. revealed a major family secret. Despite having helmed one of the best known bakery brands in North America, his father did not have a sweet tooth.
“I’m going to tell you something that’s been pretty much a secret, most of my life anyway,” he told Newsday. “He didn’t eat Entenmann’s cake … He just wasn’t a dessert guy.”