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Hall of Fame honors Schwebel’s founder

Dora Schwebel, co-founder of the Schwebel Baking Co.

Dora Schwebel, co-founder of the Schwebel Baking Co., with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1950s in Youngstown, Ohio. Image courtesy of the Schwebel Baking Co.

By Natalie Lariccia | Special to the Metro Monthly

From the familiar yellow plastic bags adorned with a smiling clown face, to the appetizing aroma of fresh bread that permeates Midlothian Boulevard, near the Youngstown-Struthers border, Schwebel’s Bakery stands as a symbol of Youngstown’s history.
But the nearly 103-year-old, family-owned bakery represents much more than a long-standing Youngstown baking icon. Schwebel’s is a direct result of the courage and perseverance of one widow who refused to quit.

Even through some of the most devastating personal and economic circumstances and during an era when women were not typically running businesses and raising families, Dora Schwebel never stopped believing that her company would rise and prosper to become one of the most recognized bakeries in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

And, just in time for Women’s History Month, Dora Schwebel’s legacy will be commemorated with her induction into the Baking Hall of Fame during the American Baking Society’s 2009 Baking Tech Conference March 1-4 in Chicago.

Although Dora is deceased, some of Dora’s relatives, including Lee Schwebel, Dora’s great grandson and Schwebel’s director of corporate communications, will attend the ceremony.

Lee Schwebel never had the opportunity to meet Dora – he was just one year old when she died – but he is familiar with the many endearing stories about his grandmother and has helped gather a vast collection of photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, memorabilia and audio recordings that memorialize Dora and the bakery.

“She had the heart of Mother Theresa, but she was tough. I never knew her, but I was obviously influenced by her legacy as it’s been passed down from generation to generation,” Lee Schwebel said.
The story of Schwebel’s bakery began in the small kitchen of Dora’s Campbell home that she shared with her husband, Joseph Schwebel. A young Polish immigrant, Joseph arrived in America in 1898, and married Dora – then 19-years-old – in 1906.

Fresh from the experience of losing just about everything from his initial baking business, Dora suggested to her husband that she should be his new business partner.

Within eight years of baking their first loaf in 1906, Schwebel’s was serving a growing number of small grocery stores, and in 1923, the Schwebels spent $25,000 to open a small bakery on Lawrence Avenue that produced 1,000 loaves a day.

Tough times ensued when Joseph suddenly died of appendicitis, leaving Dora a widow raising six young children, as well as managing the bakery.

Friends and family encouraged her to sell the bakery and focus on raising her family, but Dora refused. In 1929, she faced more hardship when the stock market crashed and the business lost nearly all its investments, leaving Dora without cash to pay the local miller that supplied it with flour. But Dora was determined to maintain her business and convinced the flour companies to extend credit to continue operations.

The Great Depression followed, and while the economy floundered, Schwebel’s flourished, opening a new bakery in 1936. The company’s still-current mascot, Happy the Clown, was introduced as a symbol of hope and optimism during this otherwise bleak time. Dora also helped served the hungry and poor in the community by distributing loaves to those in need, Lee Schwebel said.

In 1951, Schwebel’s opened its “Million Dollar Bakery” at its current location on Midlothian Boulevard, which serves as the company headquarters. Dora remained an active fixture in the company’s operations until she died in 1964.

Today, Schwebel’s continues to prosper, employing about 1,400 workers at its four baking facilities and 30 distribution centers across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.

Lee Schwebel, who joined the company in 1995, recalls a fond memory when he heard Dora’s voice for the first time after stumbling across an old record of a WKBN radio broadcast that featured Schwebel’s history and Dora’s efforts.

“It was like opening up a treasure chest. It was very emotional,” he said. “It gives us a much better understanding of the times, hearing her voice. If Dora didn’t persevere and demand that we (Schwebel’s) continue we wouldn’t be here . . . it’s that simple.”

Joe Schwebel, Schwebel’s president, recalled a fond memory of joining Schwebel’s in 1960 as a rather “full of himself” college graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Although Joe Schwebel, who is Dora’s grandson and Lee’s father, may have expected to have a more prestigious office Job, Dora put him to work on early morning shifts, learning the company’s 39 wholesale delivery routes.

“The moral of the story is that I learned more about business riding those 39 routes than I learned in four years of college . . . I think she (Dora) still inspires us today. Her presence was so strong,” Joe Schwebel said.

Schwebel’s history

1898 – Joseph Schwebel, an apprentice baker, comes to America from Poland at age 16.

1900 – Dora Goldberg emigrates from Poland at age 13 with an eighth-grade education.

1906 – Joseph and Dora marry and start baking rye bread in an old fashioned stove in their East Youngstown (Campbell) home. They deliver on foot using wicker laundry baskets filled with 40 pounds of bread. Their primary customers are steel workers living in boarding houses.

1914 – A driver/salesman begins making deliveries by horse and buggy. Customer base expands to mom-and-pop stores.

1923 – With a capital investment of $25,000, the Schwebels open a small bakery on West Lawrence Avenue in Youngstown. Production increases to 1,000 loaves daily. Six trucks make deliveries. The company has 15 employees.

1928 – Joseph Schwebel dies of acute appendicitis at age 46. Dora Schwebel assumes leadership of the company and son Irving Schwebel leaves college to help run the business.

1929 – The stock market crashes and the Great Depression begins. Dora Schwebel takes steps to preserve assets.

1930 – The company invests $8,000 in a new dough mixer. Dora Schwebel guarantees payments to creditors by promising to work on her hands and knees, if necessary.

1931 – Schwebel Baking Co. incorporates.

1932 – The company introduces “Happy the Clown” as its company trademark.

1936 – Schwebel’s introduces bread sliced and wrapped by hand. A $50,000 plant expansion increases production to 15,000 loaves daily. The company installs new automated equipment to separate loaves from baking pans and package 1,800 loaves per hour. Eleven delivery trucks now service customers.

1941 – The U.S. government subsidizes the company during World War II to ensure an adequate food supply. The majority of the company’s output is shipped to the Ravenna Arsenal in Ravenna, Ohio to feed the military. Production increases to 24,000 loaves per day and delivery expands to a 50-mile radius.

1945-48 – Sales department goes entirely wholesale; house-to-house sales discontinued.

1949 – The company constructs a new bakery on Midlothian Boulevard in Youngstown.

1950 – Fire destroys most of the West Lawrence Avenue bakery location.

1951 – Schwebel’s moves into the new $1 million bakery on Midlothian Boulevard. Capacity grows to 40,000 loaves per day.

1954 – Employees number 100.

1955-1963 – The Midlothian bakery expands numerous times.

1964 – Dora Schwebel dies at age 76.

1968 – Schwebel’s presents a bronze replica of its 100 millionth loaf to Youngstown Mayor Frank Kryzan.

1969 – Company introduces Roman Meal.

1972 – A Canton distribution center opens, the first move outside the Youngstown market.

1974 – Schwebel’s enters the Cleveland market when Laub Bakery of Cleveland closes.

1976 – Schwebel’s enters the Pittsburgh market with the purchase of the McKeesport, Pa. Vienna Bakery.

1977 – A $2.5 million expansion in Youngstown fully automates bread production. The state-of-the-art bread line produces 120 loaves per minute.

1983 – Schwebel’s begins providing its original rye bread to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center.

1984 – The company completes a $2 million plant and office expansion.

1990 – Three Schwebel’s bakeries have a combined capacity to produce 500,000 pounds of bread products daily.

1995 – The fourth generation of the Schwebel family begins working for the company.

2006 – Schwebel’s celebrates 100 years.

– Source: Schwebel Baking Co.

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