If you work in or visit downtown Fort Wayne, you’ve probably caught a whiff of baking bread while walking or driving with your windows down. And no doubt, that smell has made your tummy grumble a time or two.
That yeasty goodness filling the air comes from Aunt Millie’s Bakeries on Pearl Street. If you still don’t recognize it, it’s the building that has the rotating slices of bread on its roof. It’s also a building that is more than 100 years old and has been baking bread and other products for just as long.
Once you are inside, the smell is almost hard to take. It makes one wonder how the front-office workers don’t keep a tub of butter under their desks. When asked this question, they smile and admit that one gets used to it.
But that’s probably the case for most of the 1,600 workers that Aunt Millie’s employs in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky.
The Fort Wayne-based, family-owned company was started in 1901 by J.B. Franke as the Fort Wayne Biscuit Co. It later changed its name to Perfection Bakeries and then to Aunt Millie’s Bakeries in 2005.
The bakery, one of six in three states, makes about 900,000 loaves of bread a week. That’s not including all the other products, such as muffins, bagels and buns.
Walking through the building, hundreds of loaves of bread on conveyor belts circle above visitors’ heads. The loaves are placed on the belts for about an hour after baking in order to cool to 100 degrees.
There are strips of fabric under the belts to catch the crumbs, but it still doesn’t prevent some from getting on the floor. A sign alerts people to be careful of the crumbs as it could cause a slip and fall.
The floor is a noticeable divider from the older part of the building to the new. Rod Radalia, vice president of technical services and quality assurance, points out that the more worn, wooden floors are part of the original building, while the tiled floors are part of an addition added in the 1970s.
Radalia, who has been with Aunt Millie’s for 15 years, also points out that the dough used to be mixed on the building’s second floor and then dropped through a huge hole in the floor to waiting workers below.
Now, the dough is mixed on the first floor in large troughs. About 70 percent of the dough is mixed and then placed in the troughs, where it is left to rise for four hours. After that, more ingredients are added and then the dough is rolled, flattened and placed in individual loaf pans, which are then placed in a proofer for another hour to rise again. About 900 loaves come from one trough.
Dewey Schultz is one of the workers who makes sure the pans of dough are up to standards. He watches the pans move along the belt and makes adjustments when necessary on a control panel nearby. He has worked at Aunt Millie’s for 20 years. When asked how much bread he has made while there, he laughs and simply says, "Too much."
The loaves then move to the oven where they are baked. Baking temperatures can vary from 415 to 430 degrees and it takes about 17 minutes. One doesn’t have to stand too close to the oven, which Radalia says is the largest in the company, to feel the heat.
Once baked, the pans are placed on another conveyor belt, which moves under a circular belt of tiny, blue suction cups that pluck the bread from the pans one by one – pop, pop, pop. It’s here that workers examine the bread again to make sure that the height, weight, color and temperature of the loaves are to company standards. Radalia randomly pulls a loaf off the belt to show what a perfect loaf looks like. And it does look perfect. Nicely browned, nicely shaped and of course, it smells delicious.
From there, it’s off to chill awhile on the overhead belts, and then to the slicer, which can slice 140 loaves a minute. The bread is then packaged and placed on racks to await delivery to stores or restaurants.
The whole process is actually like a baking musical. Everything timed and performed to tasty perfection. Now the only thing left is for the customer to pick up a loaf and make some buttered toast or maybe a good old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich.