The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread: The History of the Memphis Wonder Bread Bakery

Once a Memphis icon, residents remember fondly of the years when the Wonder Bread bakery would send the scent of freshly baked bread down the streets of their neighborhood. 

The Taggart Baking Company launched the Wonder Bread brand on May 21, 1921. That same year, they constructed the 184,393-square-foot Memphis bakery on Monroe Avenue, sporting a colorful mix of hand painted and neon signs. Taggart would later be bought by Continental Baking in 1925, making Wonder Bread a national brand.

Wonder Bread was different than the other bread brands at the time. A loaf was half a pound larger than others, and beginning in the 1930s, Wonder Bread was shipped pre-sliced, was one of the first companies to do so, and considered a significant milestone for both the industry and American consumers. 

During the 1940s, vitamins and minerals were added to Wonder Bread as part of a government-sponsored program of enriching white bread, which was deficient in vitamin and mineral content, to combat certain diseases such as beriberi and pellegra. They were also the first national brand to feature shelf life as well as nutrition information on its packaging. Wonder Bread would continue to advertise its nutrient enrichments into the 1960s using the slogan, “Helps build strong bodies 12 ways.” 

In 1995, Continental Baking was bought by Interstate Bakeries Corporation. Interstate declared bankruptcy in 2004, but would emerge in 2009 as Hostess Brands. Less than two years later, Hostess would file for bankruptcy a second time.

Workers began striking in November 2012 at the bakeries and distribution centers nationwide over new contracts from Hostess which cut pay and benefits. Many of the workers believed the company was poorly managed and that even if they didn’t strike, the company was inevitably going to close anyway.

It wasn’t long before Hostess announced they would cease operations, temporarily ceasing production of Wonder Bread. Flower Foods, owner of Nature’s Own and Tastykake brands, signed an agreement to acquire Hostess’ bread brands, including Wonder Bread. By the end of the following year, Wonder Bread was back on store shelves. 

While the Wonder Brand brand continues on, the Memphis facility remained closed. It would remain vacant until 2018, when it was announced that a portion of the factory would be demolished to be replaced with two four-story apartment buildings and a 480-space parking garage, and the west end of the building would be renovated into retail and office space. 

The Cuban Town That Hershey Built

Between Havana and Matanzas are signs pointing to the town of Camilo Cienfuegos, but that name never really stuck and most people still refer to the town by its original name, Hershey.

Back in 1916, Milton S. Hershey decided to buy sugar plantation in Cuba to supply his growing chocolate empire back in states. He had a large sugar refinery built along with an adjoining village to house his workers and their families, a model town like he had done in Hershey, Pennsylvania. 

The village consisted of 160 homes, laid out in a grid with clean lawns and front porches in the style common in the growing suburbs of the United States. It also had a public school, a medical clinic, a movie theater, a golf course, shops, social clubs, and even a baseball stadium where a Hershey-sponsored team would played their home games at. 

Along with the town, Mr. Hershey also built the country’s electric railway between Havana and Matanzas, making transportation of goods much easier. 

The factory became one of the most productive sugar refineries in the country and those living in the village were envied by those who lived in the neighboring towns. Even though the company owned all the properties, they paid relatively high salaries, subsidized housing, maintained public utilities, and were quick to make home repairs. Just like in the United States unfortunately, class and racial segregation was in play here as well as supervisors lived in the largest houses, workers in the smallest, and black workers were given homes on the edge of town.

Milton Hershey died in 1945, leaving no heirs and giving most of his fortune to charity. The company sold the village and the plant in 1948, along with any other Cuban holdings. 

When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, the town’s mill and thousands of acres of sugar cane fields were owned by Cuban sugar magnate Julio Lobo. Castro had the homes redistributed, the mill and railway were nationalized, and he had the name of the town changed to Camilo Cienfuegos, named after his friend who died in October 1959 when his plane disappeared traveling from Camaguey to Havana.  Sugar which was used in Hershey chocolate bars was now being used to sweeten Soviet tea. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cuban economy fell with it. The sugar industry declined and in the early-2000s, the government would shutdown sugar plants throughout the country, including the one in Hershey. Kept running by resourceful engineers, the railway is still used today, though breakdowns are frequent and trains are regularly late. 

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