Margaret Haley, c. 1904, business manager, Chicago Teacher's Federation. Collection of Ferret Research. Collection of Ferret Research. Alice Foote MacDougall, c. 1922, founder, Alice Foote MacDougall. Collection of Ferret Research.   

Catherine Clark's Brownberry Ovens

by Mary Goljenboom

Originally posted on May 3, 2013

In the early 1940s, Catherine Clark tasted a piece of bread that she thought was delicious. This loaf’s texture was dense and the cracked wheat and unbleached flour colored it a rich shade of brown. It was quite different than the spongy white bread found on store shelves

Today it is hard to appreciate the unusualness of that loaf. We are used to the great varieties of bread offered by local bakers, franchised bakeries, and supermarkets. That variety was unusual in the 40s. While Pepperidge Farm was building its brand in the eastern US as maker of whole wheat bread, and there were, no doubt, other bakeries in American neighborhoods providing specialty breads to customers, home bakers filled most of the desire for variety. Even with a home or commercial baker to supply the bread, getting ingredients might be hard because so many food staples were shipped to Europe and the Pacific as part of the war effort.

Clark had a feeling that this bread, from a small commercial bakery in Delafield, Wisconsin, near her home, would be popular. If she was right—and she believed she was—someone could make a lot of money with that recipe. She wanted to be that someone. For a long time she’d wanted to build a business and had, at one time, imagined owning a children’s shop. The whole wheat bread recipe was the opportunity she was looking for.

Clark’s ingredients: belief that the recipe would appeal to other consumers, the business acumen of her husband (Harvard MBA 1927), capital from a second mortgage on their home and a loan from friends, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

 Like a good cook, she did her prep work. She bought the recipe from the Delafield baker, a commercial mixer, and a commercial oven. She scouted locations for the bakery and chose a former grocery store in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. To deliver the fresh bread, she purchased an old beer truck. She hired her handyman to keep it, and the other machinery, running and to make the deliveries. By 1946, all the ingredients – including supplies of sugar and shortening, which had been unsteady due to World War II – were available. After three years of planning and preparing, she finally fired up the ovens, and, with her second employee, she made the bread.

Within three months demand was outstripping her production capacity. Catherine Clark purchased additional equipment, again second-hand to keep down expenses. Growth continued and by the end of the first year, a new, higher capacity oven was purchased. Clark added new products, too: white bread, rye bread, and cinnamon-raisin bread. Brownberry Ovens showed a profit for its first year of $59 (around $650 in today’s money).

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Catherine Clark explained her success: “We figured we had to be original and different—and then convince the public this difference was something they needed. Our bread is different in appearance, texture and taste. This was our sales pitch and it worked.”

And how!

Like her bread, Catherine Clark’s Brownberry Ovens, Inc. doubled in size, than doubled again, growing to include specialty breads, dinner rolls, stuffing, and crotons. In 1972, yearly sales were about $6 million and products were distributed in forty states. That year, after twenty-six years in business, Clark sold her company to insure its longevity.

Clark might be surprised by the number of companies that have owned her brand since 1972. The owners made a few changes. Catherine Clark’s name disappeared from the wheat-shaft logo of her Brownberry Ovens’ products. The word “Ovens” disappeared, too. Finally “Brownberry” disappeared, replaced by “Arnold,” the maker of the bread since 1984. In 2007, George Weston Bakeries, who owned the Arnold brand, went even further—it dropped Catherine Clark’s recipe (which was their most popular Brownberry bread) in favor of a softer, sweeter formula. The company was deluged with complaints from loyal customers. The company listened, and Catherine Clark’s original-recipe whole wheat bread was back on store shelves within months.

Brownberry Ovens became part of Bimbo Bakeries USA in 2010. Because of Bimbo’s size and distribution clout, the original-Brownberry-recipe bread is now marketed under the Arnold brand at the world’s largest food retailer, Wal-Mart. Each loaf is a reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit of Catherine Clark.