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When it comes to storied Southern traditions, a loaf of Merita Old Fashioned Bread ranks near the top of the list, right along side baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.
The preferred sliced bread of many Lancaster households may be a thing of the past after Hostess brands announced last week it plans to cease operations amid labor problems.
The days are numbered for the official bread of the Southeastern Conference and longtime sponsor of the Lone Ranger’s radio and TV shows.
It’s a matter who owns whom.
Merita, based in Birmingham, Ala., was bought out by Interstate Brands in 1988 and that company later became Hostess.
Hostess, the parent company for brands such as Twinkies, Ho Hos and Wonder Bread, filed for bankruptcy in January, the second time since 2004.
Hostess announced Friday, Nov. 16, it was “winding down operations” and was seeking court permission to go out of business after failing to get wage-and-benefit cuts from striking bakery workers.
Hostess declared bankruptcy, and a judge told them they could cut pay to workers, but leaders of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) would not agree to concessions on Nov. 9, and went on strike.
Union president Frank Hurt issued a statement saying Hostess’ financial problems were a “decade in the making.” He said it was unfair for the company to point fingers at the union.
“The truth is that if it had not been for the valiant efforts of our members over the last eight years, including accepting significant wage and benefit concessions after the first bankruptcy, this company would’ve gone out of business long ago,” Hurt said.
The wind-down means that 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers, about 5,500 delivery routes and 570 bakery outlets in the United States will close. It also means an estimated 18,000-plus workers are out of jobs.
That includes those who run Merita routes in Lancaster and work at the Merita Bakery Thrift Store on Memorial Park Road.
On Monday, Nov. 19, a few grocery stores had packages of Merita buns and Hostess products on their shelves, but loaves of Merita Bread were few and far between. A sign on the front door of the thrift store said all of its inventory was reduced by 50 percent.
The shutdown is making another dent in local food service.
Merita has been the exclusive contract supplier of buns and sandwich breads for Lancaster County School District for several years.
Mary Thompson, food service director for the school district, said her office is now scrambling to come up with alternatives. The district’s breads are baked at the Merita Bread factory in Rocky Mount, N.C.
“We serve a lot of sandwiches, especially at the high schools,” she said.
Thompson said she was stunned by the sudden shutdown. She contacted someone at Merita early Thursday, and was assured that everything was fine.
However, Thompson said she learned Friday that 19 of the county’s 20 public schools with cafeterias had gotten their last bread delivery from Merita. Discovery School doesn’t have kitchen facilities and its students bring their lunches from home.
“It’s affecting a lot of us,” Thompson said. “Fort Mill, Chester and Chesterfield, I think, all have contracts with Merita, too.”
On Monday, Thompson was at her desk working on a recipe for the school cafeteria managers to make their own hot dog and hamburger buns. Hamburgers, she said, were on the school menus for Tuesday, the last day before the annual Thanksgiving break.
“I know it’s going to be more work for everybody, but we have to do something,” Thompson said. “It could take up to three weeks to get this fixed. If anyone knows of a good bread supplier, I hope they’ll let us know.”
While Thompson admits she is nothing more than an outside bystander, she said it was disappointing to see the two sides not come to some type of agreement.
“It was a shock,” she said. “I buy Merita bread at home. There’s nothing like it with Duke’s Mayonnaise and a fresh tomato.”
Contact Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156