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Historic Tampa bread bakery closing

The makers of Wonder Bread say the South Tampa location is outdated. About 100 workers will be let go or transferred.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 10, 2002


TAMPA -- Regular travelers on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway are about to get their last whiffs of fresh-baking bread that hang in the air midway through South Tampa. That's because the makers of Wonder Bread will close their 80-plus-year-old bakery at 420 S Dakota Ave. by Jan. 31.

About 100 union bakers, truckers and other employees stand to lose their jobs in the plant closing. Interstate Bakeries Corp. of Kansas City, Mo., begins negotiating the final severance agreements for its Tampa employees Dec. 20, but the plant's long-rumored fate has been in the cards for more than a year.

That's when the IBC decided to expand production with new equipment at a younger, larger Orlando plant rather than upgrade the old Wonder Bread plant in Tampa that's designated a historic landmark.

"In this industry you have to be constantly finding ways to be more efficient," said Ken Magill, vice president and general counsel for IBC. "Unfortunately, any facility that old faces the most issues when it comes to being upgraded with more modern equipment."

When the plant was built in the 1920s it was on the edge of town in an industrial area. As the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhoods enveloped the empty space, the environs turned tony and far more pricey. Through the 1990s the plant's newer neighbors said they loved the smell of fresh bread. But they complained regularly to city officials about the "clutter" of Wonder Bread trucks bedecked with birthday balloons making their streets an early morning race track of delivery fleets. At one point county air pollution investigators tested whether the Wonder Bread plant smokestack was filling the air with volatile organic compounds from the heating of yeast.

IBC expects to offer transfers to many of the workers facing termination. Other employees are expected to retire or take jobs with other big bread bakeries in the region such as Flower's/Nature's Own in Bradenton or Buttercrust in Lakeland, the producer of Country Hearth and the Publix supermarket chain's store brand breads.

"It's real sad anytime a plant this old closes, but this is going to be real hard for a lot of the employees," said John Erhardt, chief business agent of Local 103 of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International in Orlando. "These are very good-paying jobs with health insurance and pension benefits picked up totally by the employer. A lot of people there were making $30,000 to $40,000 a year and had worked there 10 to 15 years. People get real settled in working at a place like that so it's a close-knit team."

The union claimed a membership of about 90 percent of all plant employees, unusually high for Florida, a right-to-work state.

IBC, which also owns Merita bread, got the Tampa plant in an early 1990s swap with Continental Baking Co., which received an IBC plant in Los Angeles in return. Then IBC bought Continental in 1995. Now IBC expects to sell the property, but has made no decisions.

Wonder Bread and rolls, the No. 2-selling white bread line in Florida behind Merita, are made at the Tampa plant, which is the smallest and oldest of four IBC operates in Florida. Occasionally, Merita breads have been made there as well. But IBC's Hostess snack cake lines are all trucked in from plants in Georgia.

The company said there will be no change in its distribution system to Tampa Bay area grocers and convenience stores. But 14 delivery truck jobs covered by a contract with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also are being transferred to the Orlando plant, where the delivery fleet is linked to a different union. IBC says business as usual will continue at both of its day-old bread thrift stores locally. Staffing may change, however, because the stores are part of the bakery union unit that gives preference to seniority.

-- Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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