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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

ButterKrust Bakery

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Even in fifth grade, I had some level of awareness that white bread was not the healthiest thing for a kid to eat. Not that it ever stopped me, but still...

Three years earlier, my mother had returned to college to finish her undergraduate degree. One day she came home from class, presumably a health or nutrition course for education majors, and pronounced to her wide-eyed eight-year-old that white bread was worthless. "It just balls up in your stomach," she said as I instinctively clutched mine. That teachable moment from childhood up a conundrum I have never resolved: How can something that tastes so good be so bad for you?

Despite my mother's grim pronouncement, jelly and butter sandwiches made with Austin-baked ButterKrust bread, lovingly wrapped in wax paper and kept fresh in a vented metal Lone Ranger lunch box, had been providing me with empty but tasty calories from kindergarten on. Shoot, by first grade I had even stopped demanding that the crust be cut off my sandwiches.

As a chubby fifth grader, I had grown (quite literally) to appreciate all the alluring nuances of white bread. A slice could be slathered in butter and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon for toasting, covered in flour gravy as a side dish with Sunday fried chicken or just eaten fresh from the kitchen counter bread box. You know, the one next to the radio. I had come to truly understand that something had to be danged impressive indeed to be declared "the best thing since sliced bread."

Naturally, I needed no persuading one cold evening in November 1959 when Mother asked if I'd like to tour the just-opened ButterKrust plant on Airport Boulevard in then far north Austin. Marked by a large lighted "ButterKrust" sign that stood out in red letters like a beacon for the hungry, the state-of-the-art facility featured big plate glass windows on two sides so that passersby could observe the baking process from dough to loaf if so inclined. Watching was a choice, but it was impossible to be anywhere in that part of town and not smell the hundreds of loaves baking inside at any given time.

That comforting, magnificent smell, obviously even more intense on the interior of the plant, has never faded from my olfactory memory. If only the aroma of fresh-baked bread permeated the world's atmosphere, surely lasting peace for all would be at hand.

On this night, the bakery was hosting an open house. Hundreds of Austinites had shown up for a cook's tour that proved both interesting and appetite building. At the end of each tour everyone got a mini-loaf of hot-from-the-oven bread. Unhealthy as it was, that wonderfully nose-pleasing hunk of white bread could not have lasted more than a minute. Visitors also got more lasting souvenirs-a booklet on bread as the staff of life and a wooden ButterKrust ruler.

A venerable Texas company founded in San Antonio in 1882 by William Louis Richter and his new bride Emma, its owners not only knew how to bake good bread, they knew what makes for successful marketing and community relations. While grownups were the ones who bought their product, the company grew their customer base from grade school up by offering field trips at their bakeries. Too, the company posted eye-catching advertising signs urging drivers to slow down in school zones.

In addition, at the beginning of each school year, we were issued a set of ButterKrust textbook covers. Printed on brown paper, the covers featured Little Miss Gingham, a coyly smiling girl with long eyelashes and a gingham bow in her wavy blonde hair. Of course, she held a loaf of ButterKrust bread. By sixth grade, she was beginning to look about as intriguing to my male classmates and I as the bread in her hands.

On the covers beneath Little Miss Gingham, the then well-known brand name was featured in white letters inside a red oval. Alas, though I would grow up to make a living off words, it was someone else who discovered the sixth-grade humor in using a red marker to obliterate the "erK" in ButterKrust to make your textbook cover read "Butt rust."

Unappetizing as that sounds, ButterKrust bread had been a staple in the Capital City long before I became a consumer.

When ButterKrust first came to Austin in the fall of 1923, the company built a plant at 300 Lamar overlooking the Colorado River. It adjoined the railroad tracks for ease in off-loading all the flour and other ingredients that went into the city's daily bread. By the late 1950s, Austin was growing and ButterKrust positioned itself to rise with it. Construction of a much larger plant off Airport Boulevard began in November 1958 and was finished about a year later. The old facility was sold to Goodwill Industries.

For those who actually grew up in Austin as opposed to moving in from California, it seemed impossible that there could ever be an Austin without ButterKrust. But in 1997, the terrible news came. The ButterKrust bakery would be shutting down, the brand corporately absorbed by FlowersFoods. By then, no matter all the ButterKrust bread I had eaten over the years, I had managed to reach middle age. But perpetually young and cute Little Miss Gingham had been relegated to obscurity. White bread trucked in from distant bakeries tastes okay, but it will never measure up to that hot mini-loaf of ButterKrust bread enjoyed on that long ago fall night.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 24, 2018

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