Leidenheimer has established itself as the bakery for New Orleans’ traditional French breads.
All successful bakeries are intimately linked with their cities, but none more so than Leidenheimer Baking Co. “The health of New Orleans and the health of Leidenheimer go together like a hand in a glove,” says Sandy Whann, president of the bakery. “When I talk about Leidenheimer, I talk about the city of New Orleans. You can't separate the two.”
George Leidenheimer, Whann's great grandfather, started the bakery in 1896 after he immigrated from Deisdesheim, Germany. The Leidenheimer family had been bakers in Germany, and George quickly established himself in New Orleans, producing the ethnic German breads of his culture.
Like the rest of the United States, the city was a melting pot of different cultures, which began to meld as the populations became “Americanized.” The dense, dark German breads that Leidenheimer Baking Co. had been producing fell out of fashion, but the bakery adapted and became a large supplier of the lighter French breads that were in demand. This bread would become the basis of the famous po-boy, a New Orleans icon. Po-boy refers to both the bread and the actual sandwich. Legend has it that the po-boy (it is not referred to as a sandwich in New Orleans, instead it is simply called a po-boy) came about during a streetcar conductor strike in 1929. Former streetcar conductors Benny and Clovis Martin had opened a sandwich shop and vowed to feed all striking workers who came to their shop.
The solution to feed the workers without going bankrupt was a sandwich made from a French baguette. However, the baguette's traditional shape with its tapered ends created sandwiches that were unequal in size. The solution: a symmetrical, 32-in. loaf about 3 in. wide from end to end that could be cut into equal 8-in. or 12-in. sandwiches. As the workers would come in for the sandwich, the brothers would say, “Here comes another one of those po' boys, give them something to eat,” Whann says.
Po-boy fillings include hot roast beef with gravy, ham and cheese, fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, soft-shell crab or catfish), hot sausage, meatballs and even French fries. A “dressed” po-boy has lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise.
Po-boys are popular with all demographic groups, and Leidenheimer Baking Co. is a primary supplier of the po-boy in the New Orleans region. “People ask how the bread itself developed, and how we got the light airy loaves,” Whann says. “I think as people started putting fried seafood on bread for sandwiches, they couldn't have a heavy, dense, gummy bread. They had to have something light that accentuated the seafood as opposed to covering it up.” The lighter, crispy crust French-style bread was the answer.
The bakery also made a name for itself by supplying the bread for another popular New Orleans sandwich, the muffuletta (Sicilian for round). Salvatore Lupo invented the original muffuletta in 1906 at Central Grocery. A traditional muffuletta is stuffed with ham, salami, cheese and marinated olive salad. Other versions include seafood, turkey or eggplant. The bread, a sesame seed-covered round loaf, has to remain crusty even as it soaks up the olive oil. Leidenheimer produces 6-in., 9-in. and cocktail-size muffulettas.
“Our business has changed a little over the years, but we still are the primary provider of French bread to New Orleans,” Whann says. “I think that George Leidenheimer in his day was really working with his customers, just as we do today. You try to make something with the highest quality in mind that matches your customers' tastes and needs. He was doing that a hundred years ago, and we're doing it today.”
Change while staying the same
The bakery's product line includes muffuletta and Italian breads, but the primary product is the traditional, naturally fermented, hearth-baked French breads, such as po-boys and the best-selling 10-in. pistolet. Pistolet rolls serve as a basis for sandwiches and were originally named because their shape resembled a pistol. The bakery offers pistolets in a variety of sizes.
Leindenheimer's more than 20 truck routes provide fresh product seven days a week to po-boy shops, white tablecloth restaurants, hotels and commissaries in the Gulf Coast region. “New Orleans is a city that thrives on hospitality. The restaurateurs who are our customers are wonderful people to work with because their mission in life is to please people and to show off New Orleans,” Whann says. “We get to help them in that task and that's a terrific role to play.”
Whann also is very interested in expanding New Orleans-style cuisine throughout the country, and to that end, Leidenheimer ships frozen product to accounts nationwide through distributors. He foresees the growth of Leidenheimer to be in its frozen product division. The bakery is set up to meet all of its customers' bread needs.
While some wholesale bakeries find it hard to customize, Leidenheimer is committed to remaining flexible enough to offer customers customized products. When the bakery recently added its fourth production line, the flexibility to produce a variety of products on the line was key in choosing the components. With more than 50 SKUs, the bakery has to be able to quickly switch from product to product. The bakery has organized its baking shifts to accommodate customers' needs to help ensure they receive the freshest product possible. Whann's brother-in-law, Mitch Abide, became the bakery's production manager seven years ago after he graduated from AIB International, Manhattan, Kan.
After mixing, shaping and proofing, the products are baked in an 84-ft. tunnel oven or, in the case of the muffulettas, in five rack ovens. After baking, the products from the tunnel oven are conveyed to a spiral cooler for a 30-minute cooling process before moving to the overhead conveyor to be transported to the packaging line. Products baked in rack ovens are depanned by hand onto a conveyor that meets up with the conveyor from the spiral cooler.
Whann and a local chef, Susan Spicer, started an artisan product line called Wild Flour Breads for customer requests the wholesale production could not meet. This product line is produced in the Leidenheimer facility and is delivered exclusively through Leidenheimer's distribution system. Wild Flour Breads offers more than 100 SKUs and allows the bakery to meet requests for more artisan and specialty breads. The artisan line was created as one more way Leidenheimer could meets its customers' bread needs.
“In many cases, customers will come to us for everything. To a large degree that's because we have a sales force who understands the importance of service and of developing a relationship with customers,” Whann says. “It's definitely the backbone of our business: high quality products and incredible service.”
Empowered sales force
The service aspect of the bakery is emphasized by the power placed with the sales staff. Each sales person runs his territory as if it's his own small business. Technology helps make managing the sales territories easier. Leidenheimer always has invested heavily in technology, and was one of the first bakeries to use handheld computers when they were introduced in the 1990s.
Recently, that technology was upgraded, and each sales person was issued new handheld computers that have signature capture technology, very similar to what UPS uses. It allows customers to sign on delivery, which provides the bakery with instantaneous signed invoices. The handhelds also include a printer that uses thermal paper, so customers can get a signed invoice at the time of delivery. All ordering is immediately sent to the bakery's computer system as the customers place the orders with the sales staff.
The bakery has a fairly sophisticated computer system, Whann says, both with the sales' handheld devices and the ordering system in place at the bakery. “We're very confident in our internal reporting system,” he adds. “These types of things help you manage in difficult times, such as these, because we are able to glean real-time information.” The success of the set-up has allowed the bakery to maintain its level of unparalleled service.
This commitment to service and the bakery's quality products has created loyal customers. After Hurricane Katrina, customers called Whann asking when the bakery was reopening because they weren't going to open their restaurants until they could get their bread from Leidenheimer. One customer in Washington, D.C., well out of the storm's devastation, posted a sign declaring it would not sell po-boys until Leidenheimer was back up and running, Whann says. “Those are special things that let you know you're doing a few things right.”
With its location in New Orleans, storms and hurricanes are inevitable, and dealing with hurricanes has to be a part of business as usual. The local joke is that the business model is 52 weeks of expenses and 51 weeks of sales, Whann says. However, some storms are worse than others, namely Hurricane Katrina, which hit the region in August 2005. (New Orleanians do not call the storm by name; instead they refer to time as either pre-storm or post-storm.) Katrina shut down the bakery for nearly four weeks, and the bakery lost almost half of its nearly 100 employees, some of whom moved away in the storm's aftermath and never returned.
With the dispersed population, Leidenheimer had to find a new workforce. The new employees were culled from the growing Hispanic population that began moving in to the area after the storm. “I'm very happy that we now have a group that's absolutely incredible. It's the strongest workforce I could ever have imagined,” Whann says. “We have our long timers who have taken our new folks under their wing and really taught them the specifics.”
Leidenheimer has tried to make the transition of a new workforce as seamless as possible. It offers free English language classes and provides bilingual safety training and signage. “We had some language barriers, but when people are pushing in the same direction, they figure it out,” Whann says. “The bottom line is we're supporting all of our workers in learning.” The bakery recently brought in a Spanish professor from a local university to teach language classes at the bakery.
This new staff was put to the test during Hurricane Gustav, which hit the region in September 2008. While the city escaped extensive damage, it was under a mandatory evacuation order, which shut down the bakery for five days. Employees once again were scattered across the United States.
“Our challenge as a bakery is that we need to be up and running the day before the city repopulates because we're on the front lines of the foodservice industry. It's critical that we have our employees back early. We have a very devoted group of folks who work side-by-side to get things back up and going after these storms,” Whann says. “We don't like the idea of storms, but we do have a well rehearsed way of dealing with them. We're getting good at it, even though it's not something we really want to be good at doing.”
It would take more than a few hurricanes to bring down a bakery that has been standing strong since it began in 1896 and been in the same location since 1902. And, it will take more than a few hurricanes to bring down the city of New Orleans. The city has always been a place where people know they will have a good time with it's laissez-faire, or leave your cares behind, attitude. “From Leidenheimer's perspective, we are going to continue to get the word out on how special New Orleans is. That message resonates with a lot of folks outside of the state, and I think that continues to provide us with a great springboard for growth,” Whann says.
“Our goal has always been to be the premier bakery of New Orleans, and I think we're there. I also think it's something we have to continue to earn every single day. We never rest on our laurels, but my goal is to maintain that position in southern Louisiana and to spread the word about our products outside the state.”
Headquarters: New Orleans
Ownership: Whann family
Plant size: about 40,000 sq. ft.
Management: Sandy Whann, president; Mitch Abide, operations manager; Nick Tzerefos, chief engineer; Scott Lemon and Mike Granier, shipping managers; Carlo Sampere and Darren Broussard, sales supervisors
Product lines: fresh and frozen French and Italian bread, including po-boys and muffulettas
Marketing territory: fresh-route business, metro New Orleans, southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region; frozen product shipped throughout the United States
Customer base: sandwich shops, white tablecloth restaurants, supermarkets and commissaries
Production lines: four
Number of employees: About 100