124-Year-Old Bread, Baked Fresh Today
Published: November 27, 2002
SNOWY white sliced Pullman loaves, neatly wrapped in wax paper. Fresh crumb cake on Saturdays, and hot cross buns every morning for Lent. Real, really mouth-puckering lemon meringue pie, sour cream muffins and oven-fresh hot-dog rolls, bagged and hung on the doorknob at dawn.
That will all sound familiar to anyone who grew up on Staten Island in the 1940’s, 50’s or 60’s, in the days when the borough’s housewives placed orders for milk and baked goods, and union drivers in uniform delivered them. The island’s big bakeries sent trucks door to door, offering the same middle-American fare that midcentury children across the nation were raised on. Old-timers remember the names of the bakeries: Hathaway, Dugan, Larsen — all gone now — and Holtermann’s, the only one left.
Nothing much has changed at Holtermann’s in a half century or more. The delivery trucks are long gone, but not the recipes, the equipment or the family, now in its fourth generation and 124th year of ownership. It is still in the same brick building, at 405 Arthur Kill Road, near Giffords Lane, that the second-generation proprietor, Albert Holtermann, moved to in 1930.
You can still pick up a charlotte russe, trimmed in dainty retro red-and-white paper and crowned with real whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, and you can buy the iced buns that some customers still call trolley buns, the name they were given by the train-station vendors who sold them in the 30’s. The honey cookies and spicy fruit bars date back to the days of Klaus Holtermann, the bakery’s German-born founder.
For his great-grandsons Jeff and Billy Holtermann, cousins who now run the business, this legacy is just another fact of a hard-working life. Now 43 and 51, they have spent most of their years in the quiet mid-island neighborhood that borders the cluster of 19th-century buildings known as Historic Richmondtown, just blocks away from the first two Holtermann sites. They are secreted away from the noisy commercial sprawl that covers much of the area, but hardly sheltered from the changes it has imposed.
”It’s gotten very tough,” said Jeff Holtermann, especially these days, when most people would sooner pick up an industrially produced Danish at the supermarket than drive out of their way for the more perishable handmade kind.
Their output is minimal, compared with the truck-route years, when the bakery turned out some 5,000 Pullman loaves a day. Now they make fewer than 100 at a time, almost entirely by hand, since it’s not worth their while to set up and clean the old rounding and dividing machines for such small batches. They still use Occident flour, the brand their grandfather chose for bread. Hot-dog and hamburger buns are also shaped on the bench, and all the white bread products are painstakingly made with a time-consuming sponge dough. They may not be trendy, but the results are delicious. To baby boomers who remember bread like this, its simple goodness is a little heartbreaking: to think that it was once ordinary, something everyone took for granted.
”That bread is the real thing,” said Annie Hauck-Lawson, an associate professor of nutrition and food history at Brooklyn College. She stumbled on Holtermann’s two years ago, while doing research for the Smithsonian Institution on historical New York City foods. ”When I was a child in Park Slope, we were very much accustomed to good local bread,” she said. Not the high-end European-style loaves in vogue now, but ”really good sliced white bread and hot dog buns, the kind you got in school or camp.”
”It had flavor and texture,” she said. ”Now, whoever’s baking like this is the exception to the rule. I mean, the buns at the ballparks are nothing to speak of.”
To such accolades, family members offer self-effacing shrugs. ”My kids prefer Martin’s,” Billy Holtermann said. ”What can you do?”
The Holtermann staff of 25 now bakes in a living museum, a cavernous, cement-floored workroom with huge, overbuilt machines whose sturdy cast-metal fittings are worn smooth from decades of hard use. The whisks, paddles and bowls on the man-size vintage Hobart and Readco stand mixers are all original, and as good as ever.
If something breaks, the family calls on Harry Kline, 82, to fix it. Some of the equipment was there when he started in 1942. He’s been there ever since, except for the wartime years he spent overseas, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. ”When I went into the service,” he said, ”Mr. Holtermann — Jeff’s grandfather — said, ‘Make sure you come back.’ So I came back, and here I am now.”
Cliff Holtermann, Jeff’s father, now semiretired, said, ”Harry comes with the building.” But Mr. Kline is hardly the only old-timer. Cliff, who is 74, still arrives at 5 every Sunday morning to make doughnuts; he buys the jelly filling from the same Yonkers supplier his father used. Billy’s father, Al Holtermann, died last year. His influence still holds strong, as he was the only family member ever to go for professional training, at the baking program of the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis.
”Al brought us up to date,” said Cliff — a half century ago, that is. Most of the coffee cakes the bakery sells today were 1950’s-style innovations Al brought back from Dunwoody. The same sort of cakes went home in the recipe books of the Entenmann brothers, more celebrated Dunwoody alumni, whose careers took a decidedly different turn. ”We wanted to stay small,” Cliff Holtermann said. ”Entenmann’s has to use a lot more preservatives than we like to.” The look is the same, though, right down to the windows and blue script on the glossy white boxes.
Cliff Holtermann keeps old holiday order forms from the 1950’s on file — his own, and competitors’ as well. Larsen’s is beautiful, with a splendid black-and-white photo of a fruit-studded stollen laid out on a doily. ”We made stollen, too,” he said. ”I would try to make things a little different than they did, so we wouldn’t compete. But before I knew it they’d be stealing my ideas. So that’s what happened — before long we were all making more or less the same thing.”
He bought equipment from the others as they dropped out of business, including five Dugan trucks from the 1940’s, one of which now sits on blocks in the bakery’s garage. ”The guys didn’t like them, because you had to stand up to drive them,” he said. ”They were good, though — they used to go through the snow. They’d go through anything.”
”I can see that truck in the Smithsonian,” Dr. Hauck-Lawson said. The Holtermanns would like to see it spruced up and rolled out for local parades.
It’s not just the truck that faces an uncertain future. When Mr. Kline can’t service the equipment anymore, Jeff Holtermann said, ”that’s when we sell and get out of here.” Really? ”Oh, I don’t really know,” he admitted. ”It’s just so hard to get outside people to come in and do this kind of stuff.”
Billy Holtermann added: ”Part of the reason we’re here is tradition. This bakery has been here so long, people would really miss it.”
Photos: ENDURING AROMAS — Holtermann’s Bakery is the last of its kind on Staten Island. Left, Joe Pepitone measures ingredients. Richard Kirch, right, hauls pans of cake batter. Below: Cliff Holtermann, a grandson of the founder, with his daughter, Jill Pepitone. Inset: hand-shaped loaves and buns. (Photographs by Mary DiBiase Blaich for The New York Times)
Correction: December 4, 2002, Wednesday A picture caption last Wednesday with an article about Holtermann’s Bakery in Staten Island misstated the surname of a great-granddaughter of the founder. She is Jill Bowers, not Pepitone.