Josephine B. Frawley Doud, c. 1926, business manager, Betsy Ross Candy Shops. Private collection. Frank Leslie's Publishing House. Collection of Ferret Research. Maggie L. Walker, c. 1913, founder, St. Luke's Bank & Trust Co./Consolidated Bank & Trust Co. Courtesy of Maggie L. Walker Nat'l Historic Site, NPS.   

Catherine Clark's Brownberry Ovens

Some time ago Catherine Clark’s name disappeared from logo of her Brownberry Ovens’ bread. The word 'Ovens' disappeared, too. Finally 'Brownberry' disappeared, replaced by 'Arnold,' the maker of the bread since 1984. Maybe I was the only one to notice.

I was not the only one who noticed in early 2007 that the current owner of the Brownberry  brand changed the bread. George Weston Bakeries was deluged with complaints. The company listened to its customers. Catherine Clark’s original whole wheat bread recipe went back on store shelves.

In the early 1940s when she first tasted it, Catherine Clark had the same reaction as her twenty-first century customers—she thought it was delicious. Used to spongy white bread on store shelves, this loaf’s texture was dense and the cracked wheat and unbleached flour colored it a rich shade of brown.

While today’s customers are used to the variety offered by local bakers, franchised bakeries, and supermarkets, such variety was usually not available then, accept in one’s own kitchen. Additionally, American troops in Europe and the Pacific needed to be fed, so on the home front many ingredients were rationed. There was not great demand for commercial bakers to come up with a new bread recipe nor were the ingredients available to experiment.

The loaf Catherine Clark tasted came from a small commercial bakery in Delafield, Wisconsin, near Mrs. Clark’s home. Catherine Clark had a feeling that this bread 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 create the business that made it so.

Some women are forced into business by severe financial necessity or a desire to hold onto a family business. Catherine Clark’s desire was to be a business owner. At one time she imagined owning a children’s shop but that remained just an idea. The whole wheat bread recipe was the opportunity she was looking for.

Clark’s ingredients: belief in her assessment & ability, belief in the recipe, the business acumen of her husband (Harvard MBA 1927), capital from a second mortgage on their home & a loan from friends, and a desire—as strong as the fragrance of bread baking in an oven—to manage a business.

Like a good cook, she did her prep work. With the recipe she also purchased a commercial mixer and a commercial oven. She scouted locations for the bakery and chose a former grocery store in Oconomowoc. To deliver the fresh bread she purchased an old beer truck and hired her handyman to keep it and the other machinery running and to make the deliveries. Due to World War II supplies of sugar and shortening were unsteady but by 1946 all the ingredients were available. After three years she finally fired up the ovens. 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, larger 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, $59.

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 it still works.