In 1908, Ninia “Ninnie” Baird began selling the bread she baked on a wood stove in her kitchen. She built her business into Mrs Baird’s Bakeries, the largest independent, family-owned bakery in the United States, with 11 plants and more than 2,500 employees.
Ninnie and William Baird brought their family to Fort Worth in 1901. William, a restaurateur, sold popcorn from the city’s first steam popcorn machine, a bright red contraption with brass fittings and a steam whistle. He bought a second machine, and son Dewey, then 8, ran it. William subsequently returned to the restaurant business, buying run-down restaurants and fixing them up. Ninnie supplied bread and pastries.
When William was diagnosed with diabetes and could no longer run the restaurants, Ninnie began to sell fresh bread from her home to support the family. Her four sons helped with the baking and delivered their goods to customers. The girls took care of the small children and kept the house running. William died in 1911, but the baking business kept growing. In 1915, the family bought a commercial oven from the Metropolitan Hotel for $25 and credit for bread. They built a wooden building in the backyard for the oven, and the baking moved out of the home kitchen. Now they could bake an impressive 40 loaves a day.
At first, the boys delivered baked goods on their bicycles. But with increased business, they converted the family buggy into a sales wagon and hitched up their horse. The family did little bookkeeping. If there was money at the end of the month, they had made a profit. In 1917, the Bairds bought a car, converted it into a truck, and painted the slogan “Eat More Mrs Baird’s Bread” on it. (There is never a period after Mrs in the company name.)
The Bairds began to provide bread to wholesale accounts—principally a grocery chain. In 1918, they gave up retail to concentrate on wholesale customers. To keep up with demand, they moved into a larger building where they could bake 400 loaves at a time. Business kept growing, and a second plant opened in Dallas in 1928.
Daughter Bess, a cashier, recalled that during the Depression there was probably a million dollars in the vault, because they couldn’t put the money in a bank. “Different grocery stores around town would come to the bakery to get money—we became sort of an unofficial bank.” But business fell, and so did salaries. By 1938, however, Mrs Baird’s was once again expanding—a new bakery in Fort Worth and one in Houston.
The Fort Worth bakery quickly became a local landmark. Plate glass windows allowed passersby to watch the baking process, including the hand-twisting for which Mrs Baird’s bread is famous. The smell of baking bread drifted outside, and the bakery once won an award for the best aroma in Fort Worth. The business weathered World War II without sacrificing quality. “Quality, Freshness, Service” was the slogan.
By the 1950s, Ninnie Baird’s health began to decline, and her boys took over more and more of the business. But she remained chairwoman of the board, kept an office at the Fort Worth plant and retained a controlling interest in the company. Every time the “boys” wanted to open a new plant, they had to convince their mother that they could do it successfully.
Ninnie Baird died in 1961. By then, her grandchildren were involved in the bakeries. They had grown up in the bread business—and with the strong work ethic Ninnie Baird stressed. Family businesses were common when Mrs Baird’s Bakeries began, but by the 1970s, it was the only family-run wholesale bakery in Fort Worth. By the 1990s, the company had 11 plants throughout Texas.
Today Mrs Baird’s Bakeries is a division of Bimbo Bakeries USA, a subsidiary of Mexico’s Grupo Industrial Bimbo, one of the largest baking companies in the world. The Baird family continues to serve the community through the Ninnie L. Baird Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for children and families.
Judy Alter wrote about Henrietta King in the January 2008 Texas Co-op Power.