Striking Hostess workers in Maine recall glory days of J.J. Nissen, hope brand is saved by new buyer
PORTLAND, Maine — The J.J. Nissen brand survived the Great Depression, two world wars and two changes in ownership. Now bakery workers hope one of Maine history’s best-known brands, among other subsidiaries, will survive the downfall of its current parent company.
Striking workers outside of the closing Biddeford manufacturing facility late last week lamented what they described as a disintegration of a familial work atmosphere in the 14 years since Interstate Bakeries Corp. acquired J.J. Nissen — and held out hope that a new owner would emerge to restart the plant and revive the iconic Maine bread maker.
Among the potential saviors reported are the companies that own Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Little Debbie snacks and Nature’s Own bread.
Interstate Bakeries Corp. was the official title for what now is known as Hostess Brands Inc., producer of the world famous Wonder Bread and the confectionary snacks Twinkies.
The local members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union — whose nationwide strike the parent company said forced its hand in accelerating plans to close down factories, liquidate assets and lay off more than 18,000 employees — fumed about pay and pension givebacks Hostess called for in the weeks leading into the strike. But many also said their refusal to work was rooted in what they felt was a lack of respect from their employers.
That wasn’t how they felt working for J.J. Nissen, said Lindsey Barnes, a striking bakery worker from Buxton who joined the company 19 years ago. According to the Maine Historical Society, the company was started in the early 1900s by a Danish immigrant named Jurgen Jepsen Nissen, who Americanized his name to “John.”
In the late 1980s, J.J. Nissen breads were given a boost in star power in a slate of television and print advertisements featuring Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams and Bangor Daily News sports writer Bud Leavitt.
The company stayed in family hands until the early 1990s, when The Libra Foundation, established by wealthy philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce, is credited with saving the aging company from financial collapse by buying it for $15 million and addressing deferred facility maintenance needs.
“We got a lot of respect back then,” Barnes recalled. “The owner would come out and shake our hands and say, ‘Thank you for putting in all this work.’ They respected what we did. It was about baking bread there. Here, it’s not about baking bread. It’s about paperwork and numbers.”
What Barnes referred to as “there” was the J.J. Nissen bakery on Munjoy Hill in Portland, a less-than-state-of-the-art facility left behind about 14 years ago for “here.”
“Here” is the 280,000-square-foot factory that the International Directory of Company Histories reported was part of a $100 million nationwide investment by Interstate Bakeries Corp. in its newly acquired subsidiaries. The Hostess predecessor reportedly acquired Nissen in 1998, two years after Noyce’s death, for about $22 million.
“We’re all automated,” said Sue Tapley, another striking worker and 13-year veteran of the operation. But the 21st century production lines — which in recent years were downsized from six or more lines to just two bread lines, a hamburger and hot dog roll line, and a cake shop that produced sweet snacks such as Suzy Q’s and Sno Balls — came with new managers who knew little about bakery work.
Ken Rumney of Standish, another of the striking workers, was hired by J.J. Nissen in 1969.
“That was a family bakery,” he said. “Mr. Nissen went through the bakery and talked to us. Most of the supervisors we had in Portland worked their way up the ladder. They were group leaders, then supervisors, and they knew how the bakery worked. Down here, they just hire people off the streets. Most of them have never set foot in a bakery before.”
Said Barnes, “All the guys who had come up through the ranks were fired because they would stand up to their bosses for us; they’d had our jobs before and they understood what it was like. Instead, [Hostess] brought in people from right out of college who looked good [as administrators] on paper, but had never worked a day of their lives in a bakery.”
But while local union members braced against the 8 percent pay cut, as well as significant pension and health insurance changes, that Hostess said it needed in order to stay viable, many on hand at the Biddeford plant said they remain optimistic they’ll be able to return to work baking bread and rolls again in the near future.
Barnes noted that the Biddeford facility is among the most advanced in the Hostess portfolio, and that while some of the 33 plants the company is closing nationwide are old and may never reopen, the Maine bakery is modern and well-positioned for a buyer.
Bloomberg News reported Friday that C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., the private equity firm that owns Pabst Brewing Co., is contemplating a bid for the Hostess brands. Metropoulos has a track record of rehabilitating struggling brands, Bloomberg reported, having turned around Chef Boyardee and Bumble Bee Tuna in addition to the rejuvenated Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
ABC News reported Monday that Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods Inc. and Georgia-based Flowers Foods Inc. have expressed interest in bidding for the Hostess stable of brands. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor named the Little Debbie Snacks maker McKee Foods and Mexican firm El Grupo Bimbo, the world’s largest bread baking company, as other potential suitors.
Flowers Foods owns, among other brands, Nature’s Own breads, while Grupo Bimbo already holds shares of such American mainstays as Sara Lee, Entenmann’s and Thomas English Muffins.
“[The closure of the bakery] is sad for me,” Tapley said. “I loved my job. I’d gladly keep working here — for a company that treats its workers right.”