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By pedigree and talent, three men are natural bread bakers

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Nicholas Hartner, 24, and his brother Ernie, 23, are Mancinis on their mother's side. They and their third-cousin, Reed Baker, 26, are related, five generations back, to Seven Baker Brothers, a Pittsburgh bakery that closed in the Depression, and, more recently, to Jenny Lee Bakery. The three share a common great-grandfather, Nicholas Baker, founder of Jenny Lee.

Now the three young men have opened a bakery on their own. Technically, it's owned by Nick and Ernie's mother, Mary Mancini Hartner, but she has given over complete control to her sons and nephew.

Called the McKees Rocks Bread Co., the bakery is located at 1717 Penn Ave., under the red-and-white striped Wholey awning that runs up Penn Avenue from 17th Street. They make and sell the same-style Mancini bread that has been made for 75 years and still sells in McKees Rocks at a bakery open 24/7.

The Wholeys, whose origins are similar to the Mancinis, invited them to use the space.

In 1912, Robert Leo Wholey, grandfather to the five Wholey brothers now running the business, gave up his horse-drawn peddler's wagon and opened up McKees Rocks Butter and Egg. In 1951, his son, Robert Clement Wholey, closed the store, moving first Downtown and eventually to the Strip District.

Nick Hartner, boss at the Strip site bakery, has a degree in biomedical engineering from Marquette University. When the time is right, he'll go back to school for an MBA. To make and sell bread is his destiny.

Ernie Hartner, who has a degree from the College of Letters, Wesleyan University, and is on leave from a job in public relations and book editing, says he and his two brothers have been messing with bread since they were 3 years old. "As kids, we made swords out of dough, and when the dough was baked, we had battles using them.

"Then we ate them."

Nick and Ernie's older brother, Ben, 26, tied down to his job in Washington, D.C., only wishes he could join his siblings and his cousin in this venture. At the bakery, they are sorry he's not with them, feeling that his business and computer skills would be useful.

Brothers Nick, Ernie and cousin Reed, who is a certified public accountant, are intent on making the bakery a success. It may be family. It may be fun, especially when -- as Bill Hartner, Nick and Ernie's dad, observes -- young women catch on to the three good-looking single fellows working here. But it's also serious.

Nick is working 14-hour days, making what he says is the "best bread in the world." He arrives at 4 a.m., has the first loaves ready for sale at 8 a.m. and leaves at 6 p.m. During his time here, he never stops. To interview him, I had to run along beside him, scribbling notes on my pad.

While Nick and Ernie Hartner make the bread, Reed Baker is out on the street offering samples to shoppers. At St. Malachy grade school in Kennedy, Reed won the prize for best candy-bar salesman every year. As his cousins like to point out, he is Baker, baker and barker, born with the gift.

"It's the only place around where you can get bread warm from the oven," he tells shoppers on the street. They like the idea and segue into the store in a steady stream.

According to Ernie, about half of them break into the bread they buy before they are out the door.

Sometimes Reed stands in the doorway handing out coupons, 50 cents off a baguette. Sometimes all three fellows race up and down, putting fliers under the windshield wipers of parked cars.

When they get an idea, they act on it. One of them thought they should make coffee available for customers. Reed, who has a friend in the business, negotiated for a coffee machine. So it goes. The bakery has been open since Dec. 9. It has yet to break even, but it's looking as if it might. Whatever, they mean to stay open a year "for sure."

To keep their customers interested, they offer an assortment of breads and rolls, including raisin, honey-wheat and rye, some of it designed for the store by Nicholas, some brought from the Rocks. They also make a ciabatta and a mildly sour variation of what Mancini's Bakery calls a Rustic. At the request of customers, they are making hoagies with capicolla and salami purchased from Parma Sausage Products across the street.

On this day, Parma's owners Luigi Spinabelli and daughter Rina Edwards drop by. Drawn by the name Mancini, Michael Acquaviva, a reporter from the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, pokes his head in.

Their grandfather, Ernie Mancini, visits.

"He stands at the door and smiles," says Nick.

One day with his grandson and namesake, he went to the front window to shape loaves. A crowd collected. Friends from the Rocks recognized him. People came in to swap stories. The store did a booming business.

It was their grandfather's idea to sell hot sausage sandwiches. "Your great-grandmother sold sausage sandwiches," he told the boys.

So now they sell sausage sandwiches.

"The people on the Strip have been nice," says Ernie, sweeping the floor so as not to be just talking. "They stop, say they're glad we are here, give us advice and go."

"The kids," as their mother calls them, are polite. They listen and nod and consider what's said.

They are here, they say, "just to do something on our own and together." Bread bakers they were born, and, at heart, bread bakers they will always be.

McKees Rocks Bread Co., 1717 Penn Ave., five days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 412-765-3545. Up the street, Pennsylvania Macaroni, 2012 Penn Ave., also sells Mancini bread.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at mrubin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1749.

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