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Now into its fourth generation, Byrnes & Kiefer celebrates its centennial going strong

Sunday, May 05, 2002

ByJoyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One hundred years ago this month, E.C. Byrnes left a secure sales job with the National Biscuit Co. in East Liberty to launch his own business peddling huge barrels of flour, molasses, milk powder and other ingredients to bakeries in neighborhoods around Pittsburgh.

Ed Byrnes is the third generation of his family to chair Byrnes & Kiefer, supplier of bakeries and the Eat'n Park chain. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette photos)

Byrnes teamed with an accountant named Kiefer, who had sold his minority share of the company in 1908 but whose name, hadn't been, removed from the business., A century later, E.C. Byrnes' grandson, Edward G. Byrnes Jr., still finds it convenient to keep the Kiefer name around. When he wants to stall someone on a decision, "I just say I have to check with Kiefer."

Byrnes, 61, is the third generation to run the family business and has overseen its growth from a corner bakery supplier to a $12 million enterprise that sells processed baked goods, mixes, fillings, food colorings and flavorings to bakeries found mostly in supermarkets such as Giant Eagle and Shop 'n Save, and in the Eat'n Park restaurant chain.

He joined the business in 1963, days after graduating from Franklin & Marshall College. He worked under his father, E.G. Byrnes Sr., and his uncle, John Byrnes, until he assumed the president's job in 1977. That year, John's son, Tom Byrnes joined the business; he is now vice president.

Shortly after Ed Jr. starting running the company, Pittsburgh's steel economy began its long decline, forcing Byrnes & Kiefer to rethink its strategy of exclusively supplying retail bakeries.

When the region's mills were fully operating, old-fashioned neighborhood bakeries thrived. Steel and other industrial workers would routinely pick up a dozen donuts on the way to the plants "because those guys could burn 2,000 calories in a morning," said Byrnes.


Company name: Byrnes & Kiefer Co.

Business: Processed foods and ingredients distributed mainly to supermarket bakeries

Headquarters: Callery, Butler County

History: Founded 1902 in Pittsburgh by E. C. Byrnes, a salesman with the National Biscuit Co., who launched the business to deliver bulk supplies to independent bakeries. It's now run by his grandson, Ed Byrnes Jr.

Employees: 100

Website: www.bakery-net.com/byrnes


But as the mills shuttered up and down the river valleys, mom-and-pop bakeries, like other independently operated stores, couldn't survive.

The 1980s also gave birth to a wave of fitness and healthy eating that saw many people "eating salads" instead of high-calorie sweets, said Byrnes.

His first step to diversify the business came in 1979 with the acquisition of the longtime Pittsburgh beverage favorite, Reymer's Blennd, from H.J. Heinz Co.

"I was looking for a summer product because people don't eat as many baked goods in the summer," said Byrnes. The deal paid off with Blennd -- a flavored concentrate sold in lemon and other varieties -- adding about $1 million in sales during the summer and requiring little capital investment because Byrnes & Kiefer already had sugar tanks required to process it.

Blennd sales remain steady, Byrnes said, especially in towns such as McKeesport and Homestead where older customers grew up on the stuff.

In the mid-1980s, looking to expand the business beyond Pittsburgh, Byrnes jumped at an offer to buy Chefmaster, a food colorings manufacturer in southern California. Besides colorings used in icings and candy, Chefmaster makes liquid flavorings such as vanilla and almond, meringue mixes and pastry bags.

In 1997, Byrnes & Kiefer completed one of its biggest acquisitions when it bought Charlie's Specialties, a Hermitage company that makes frozen specialty cookies, brownies and dumplings distributed to supermarkets.

B&K's various divisions employ 100 workers; closer to 150 during the peak holiday baking season before Christmas.

Employees take honey buns off a production line.

The company's main plant relocated 10 years ago from three scattered and aging sites in the North Side and Strip District to a one-story, 60,000-square foot facility in Callery, Butler County. Byrnes commutes there daily from the city's East End but believes the sprawling plant's efficiency is worth the travel time.

Inside the building, the scents of almond and vanilla waft through the air as apricot and raspberry pastry fillings simmer in 4,000-pound kettles and the sticky white icing that tops Eat'n Park's Smiley cookies fills a 2,000-pound kettle nearby. Boxes of Blennd and fruit and nut candy centers line the warehouse shelves.

In an adjacent lab room, a couple of employees are experimenting with new products that could eventually end up on the shelves at Eat'n Park, which buys the mixes for cookies and sticky buns and bakes them daily at each restaurant's bakery.

Strolling through the plant, Byrnes addresses employees by their first names and says manufacturing is his favorite part of the business because it includes "the creation of new items."

His first job at the company was unloading box cars in the Strip District when he was a teen-ager. "And I immediately blew the money on travel."

Byrnes never wanted to work anywhere else and has shunned outside offers to buy the company, which he's already planning to pass on to his children. His 31-year-old son, Aaron, who spent three years working for a food distribution company after college, now heads sales for Chefmaster. Byrnes' daughters are only 13 and 12 but he envisions them playing a role down the road.

While he's still at the helm, Byrnes expects the company to develop more fully processed and frozen food items that appeal to in-store bakeries that are trying to improve efficiency.

"Our customers want more prepared things. Take cherry pies. They want the filling, not just the ingredients to make it. And they want it completely cooked and ready to go. They don't want just cocoa powder; they want the chocolate icing right on the donut."

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