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Franz Bakery: Alaskans kneading the dough.

Next time you drive down Spenard Road in Anchorage, take a minute to roll down your window. When you reach the intersection with Hillcrest Drive you may be rewarded with the heavenly scent of fresh-baked bread from Franz Bakery, a neighborhood landmark that is Alaska's only wholesale bakery.

The bakery, formerly called Sunrise Bakery, opened in 1951 when Alaska was still a territory and is a local landmark. It employs about one hundred people and produces about one hundred different baked products under a variety of labels, including Franz and Alaska Grains, distributed to Alaska grocery stores, restaurants, and institutional clients. The only part of Alaska the Spenard bakery doesn't supply is the Southeast Panhandle, which gets its bread from a Franz Bakery in the Seattle area.

"It's much better to have bread that is baked here in Alaska than to bring it up frozen," says General Manager Larry Brandt, echoing Sunrise's longstanding slogan, "2,000 miles fresher."

Franz Bakery has been making bread, buns, and pastries for more than a century. It is a fourth-generation family-owned business that was started in 1906 in Portland, Oregon, and today has seven bakeries and operations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Its trademark is a giant rotating loaf of bread perched above its Portland facility.

The Process

The Spenard facility can produce about seventy loaves of bread per minute and fifty packages of hamburger buns per minute, Brandt says.

"For our industry, we're not as automated as a lot of facilities, but we are far more automated than a small little wholesale or retail bakery," he says.

The process starts with the flour, which is moved through a giant sifter and then mixed with the proper ratios of water and yeast for the type of bread to be made. This creates the "sponge." The sponge is put into big troughs and left in a warm, humid room to rise for four hours. Then the other ingredients, grains, seeds, fruit, etc., are mixed in to form the dough.

The dough is shaped into smaller pieces to form loaves, rolls, or buns, which are left to rise again briefly before being shaped and placed into baking pans. The dough rises a final time before being loaded into a giant oven to be baked. The bread is then cooled, sliced, packaged, and delivered.

Although white and wheat bread and buns are bakery staples, Franz also bakes a variety of specialty loaves such as cranberry-orange bread, peach cobbler bread, organic wholegrain and seed breads, as well as bagels, cookies, muffins, and snacks that are dead ringers for Hostess' Twinkies and cupcakes. The sweets are made elsewhere and shipped to Alaska. The Spenard facility bakes mostly bread and buns.

Fun fact: According to the company's website, Englebert Franz developed the first hamburger bun in 1926. Today, Franz Bakery supplies nearly every fast-food restaurant in the Northwest with buns.

Outside Ingredients, Alaskan Workers

The bakery in Spenard goes through hundreds of thousands of pounds of flour and thousands of pounds of yeast and sugar annually. Of course, the ingredients are shipped from Outside.

"There are not a lot of ingredients we can purchase in Alaska," Brandt says. "We can't buy wheat flour in Alaska. We can't buy sugar in Alaska. We're not an agricultural state."

But, the bread is fresh and local and in an increasingly health- and energy-conscious market, that counts for a lot. Over the decades, bread trends have changed and your average loaf of white bread now has a lot of competition on store shelves.

"The trends have definitely moved more toward breads that have more grains in them, more gluten-free, more organic breads," Brandt says.

The company also recently unveiled new gluten-free products, but those aren't produced in Anchorage, Brandt says. "Gluten-free products require a separate processing facility, one where there are no wheat products onsite."

The bakery in Spenard was wellknown for its on-site retail outlet, where residents could buy cut-price bread and buns. Sunrise Bakery had been selling Hostess products since 1962. It supplied bread to grocery stores, restaurants, and large institutional customers such as the Anchorage School District and donated tens of thousands of pounds of bread products to the Food Bank of Alaska.

"I've been here and in this bakery, except when it was shut, for twenty-seven years," says Brandt, a second-generation Sunrise Bakery employee who was born and raised in Alaska.

The bakery closed its doors for about six months after previous owner Hostess Brands, Inc. went out of business in fall 2012, shuttering bakeries across the country and leading to a rush for Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and other snack foods.

Hostess blamed a failed agreement with union workers for the shutdown, although Anchorage workers were not part of that union. The shutdown took workers by surprise--they came in to work only to be told the bakery would be closed at the end of the day. About ninety people lost their jobs, many of whom had worked at the bakery for twenty or thirty years. It also surprised the local businesses who relied on bread from Sunrise, leaving them scrambling for replacements that often had to be shipped across the country.

Franz Steps In

In April 2013, Franz bought Sunrise and several other former Hostess Brands bakeries in the Pacific Northwest. The $30.85 million sale, which had to be approved by the US Bankruptcy Court in New York, included four bakeries, fourteen depots, and a fleet of vehicles that supported operations across Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Alaska.

"We're excited to move forward with reopening the Sunrise Bakery and start supplying Alaska with fresh bread products," Marc Albers, president of the Portland-based Franz Bakery, stated in a news release at the time of the purchase. "We're also looking forward to contributing to the Anchorage economy by providing jobs."

Brandt started working for Franz on April 12, 2013, and many of the people who worked at Sunrise also were rehired. The first loaves of bread under the Franz label went on store shelves on May 15, 2013.

"Probably a little less than half of the employees who were working at the bakery before it closed have returned," Brandt says of the bakery's current employees.

In a nod to Sunrise's history, Franz left the original style of the old bakery's name on the building in Spenard, incorporating its branding. It also reopened two of Sunrise's former outlet stores in Anchorage and Wasilla.

Brandt says the move under the Franz corporate umbrella has been a good one. Franz is more community oriented, more family-oriented than Hostess, Brandt says. They donate to many charities such as Ronald McDonald House and sponsor community events and sports teams.

For instance, Anchorage bakery workers participated in the Polar Plunge in January to help raise money for Special Olympics. They gave away grilled cheese sandwiches and cookies. The bakery itself offers tours, something Hostess had not permitted for years.

Or, residents can just stand outside and inhale the warm, yeasty smell of fresh-from-the-oven bread as they've done for decades in Spenard.

Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION: Corporate 100--Corporate Spotlight
Comment:Franz Bakery: Alaskans kneading the dough.(SPECIAL SECTION: Corporate 100--Corporate Spotlight)
Author:Stricker, Julie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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