Katherine & Sandy Whann
Leidenheimer Baking Company
The emails that we received from total strangers — they asked us to come and set up our ovens and bake breads in their garages. I think it was then, for me, that I thought ‘Gee, everybody else gets it like I do.’ – Katherine Whann
I guess as a child you really don’t understand what an important part of your life a food culture really is — but it was something that was very important to my dad. You know he certainly stoked those fires in us. – Sandy Whann
Leidenheimer Baking Co. celebrated its centennial in 1996 with a new design for the sides of its white bread trucks: local cartoonist Bunny Matthews drew his already beloved Vic and Nat’ly Broussard, typical denizens of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, sharing a drippy shrimp po-boy and jointly exclaiming, “Sink Ya Teeth Into A Piece of New Orleans Cultcha – A Leidenheimer Po-Boy!” George Leidenheimer, a native of Deidesheim, Germany, launched the business in 1896 by baking breads in the style of his homeland, but it was his New Orleans-style French bread – used most famously to make po-boy sandwiches — that endeared his bakery to New Orleanians and propelled it into the twenty-first century as an invaluable contributor to New Orleans’ unique food cultcha. The bakery is now in its third generation and is the city’s largest producer of New Orleans French bread. Robert J. Whann, IV (“Sandy”), and his sister, Katherine Whann, manage the business in a section of town they call “the bakery neighborhood.” The siblings wear the mantle of responsibility proudly, and with humility. “We don’t take it for granted, I can tell you that,” Sandy says.
Listen to this 4-minute audio clip of Sandy Whann talking about how they came up with the unique design of the Leidenheimer’s delivery trucks. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.] What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
SUBJECT: Katherine & Sandy Whann –
Leidenheimer Baking Company
DATE: July 20, 2006
LOCATION: Leidenheimer Baking Co., Simon Bolivar Ave., New Orleans, LA
INTERVIEWER: Sara Roahan
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s July 20th 2006 and I’m at the Leidenheimer Baking Company. And if I could get you both to state your name, your date of birth, and what you do for a living.
Katherine Whann: Katherine Whann, September 2nd 1966, and I am the office manager at Leidenheimer.
Sandy Whann: My name is Sandy Whann, or Robert J. Whann, IV. I am the president of Leidenheimer Baking Company and I was born May 19th of 1964.
Thank you, and can you tell me what your relationship is?
SW: Brother and sister.
Why don’t we start out by your telling me about your product?
SW: Well the product that we produce at Leidenheimer primarily is what we refer to as traditional New Orleans French bread. It is a variation on what most people consider to be the heavier, doughy baguette-style French bread. Ours is a much lighter version with a crisp crust and a very light airy — in some ways cotton -candy-like — interior. Bread like this can be found in France and it does resemble many of the long loaves. Our most popular loaf is in excess of 32-inches long, usually ranges from 32 to 35 inches and it’s used to make the traditional po-boy sandwich here in New Orleans. We also make a variety of sizes using the same formula and we also make a variety of Italian muffaletta bread.
How long has this company, Leidenheimer, been producing bread?
SW: Well our great-grandfather, George Leidenheimer, came to New Orleans in the 1870s or ‘80s and began producing bread a few blocks from this location over on Dryades Street. In those days he was producing more of his traditional German breads. He came from Deidesheim, Germany, and he founded Leidenheimer Baking Company in 1896. He completed construction of the facility that we currently have in 1905. So that’s—and I am the fourth generation in my family to be involved with the company. George Leidenheimer’s daughter, Josephine Leidenheimer, married my paternal grandfather, Robert J. Whann. And my father, Robert J. Whann, III, took over from him, and I worked with him for the first 19 years of my career beginning in 1986. He retired in 2005 and hopefully there’s more history to be written—or at least recorded.
And when did you start getting involved Katherine? I know—I mean, it’s always been part of your life I’m sure, but as your job?
KW: I moved back to New Orleans three years ago this month and started working at the bakery in August of 2003, and my father retired shortly after that.
When y’all were growing up, at what point did you realize that your family was a big part of New Orleans culture and that you were royalty in some way? Did you ever realize that?
KW: I was always very proud that we made Leidenheimer bread. I mean, I always thought it was the best bread, you know even when I was a teenager when I would go to Domilise’s with my friends and I was always a little cocky. I was like, yeah that’s our bread. But I don’t think—and again naively—I don’t think I realized how integral it was to New Orleans until, first, the SFA awards ceremony which just blew me away, and then also, you know, it would have to come up during the storm. The emails that we received from total strangers — they asked us to come and set up our ovens and bake breads in their garages. I think it was then, for me, that I thought, Gee, everybody else gets it like I do. But, you know, people really responded in ways that—I mean it has made me incredibly proud to be any part of it at all and I consider myself a very small part of it because my dad was here 38 years toughing it out, and my brother has been here for 19 toughing it out, and I kind of did my little art thing and swooped in and now I get to have free bread every day. Certainly I just feel like I have benefited from it. But it has been a recent discovery for me how much of a part of the city we really are. And I’m very proud of that.
SW: I really don’t think that I was cognizant of it during the time that I was growing up. It was always nice and I did feel the glimmers of, you know, of pride to be able to walk into a po-boy shop and see bags of bread there that I knew were ours. In fact, in those days they didn’t even have our name on it; it was just a plain brown bag, and that’s one of the very first things I did when I got here was put our names on the bags so people could know exactly where they’re getting their bread. I got tired of asking people in restaurants, you know baiting them of course—where do you get this delicious bread? And they’d say, you know, I have no idea and that didn’t make me very happy, so we changed that. But now that you’ve asked the question, I think that when I started here 20 years ago there were five or six bakeries operating in New Orleans and this is a difficult business to survive in—in a town that has not seen much population growth and, in fact, has actually seen some shrinkage in population in the last two decades. It’s not a pleasant factor to discuss but it’s a reality that pre-Katrina we were losing population every year, and when you deal with something like bread, which is a commodity, and its consumption is based on the number of mouths that are in the city at any given time, it’s an unfortunate reality that some of the existing bakers are going to be suffering from that. Well we took the standpoint – again, in the mid-‘80s — that we were committed to this market for the long term, and so we actually began acquiring other bakeries, and in the early ‘90s we acquired our larger competitor, Risings Baking Company…and in the last two years we purchased Angelo Gendusa Baking Company. So what that’s really done, to answer your question, is as there have become fewer bakers in town the mantle of responsibility for carrying on this tradition has grown heavier because instead of having the weight distributed among a half dozen or eight bakeries, it grows heavier because by acquisition we’ve grown in market share; we’ve grown in size, and the options for customers are now fewer and so we have to be all that much better. So, for me, it’s grown exponentially really every year that I’ve been in this business in terms of understanding what a critical part of the city we are. I had never really put pen to paper and realized that on a day we don’t deliver French bread — it hasn’t happened of course except for, you know, Katrina outage — but on a day we don’t deliver French bread, take the numbers of po-boy shops and their employees who are waiting there, who are expecting paychecks, and you’re talking about thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who are making their living because of our delivering that loaf of bread every day to that po-boy shop.
Let me go back to your youth for a little while. Can you tell me what some of your earliest food memories are, whether they center on bread or otherwise?
KW: Well George Leidenheimer’s daughter, my grandmother, Josephine was a fantastic cook. I mean, she cooked, but every one of her recipes — the few that I have — all involve a stick of butter. It was the old way of cooking. And we had Sunday lunch at her house pretty much every Sunday with the table set and iced tea with sugar at the bottom and, you know, always hot bread and lots of butter. We were definitely a food-oriented family. We traveled…my father was very good about — if he had meetings somewhere he would take a few days or a week after the meetings and we would go to San Francisco or Chicago. We got to go to Germany. And my mother kept a diary of what we had seen that day and where we had gone and what each one of us ate. I mean, it was in the diary. “Well Katherine ate—; Sandy ate…” you know, and that seemed very normal to me. [Laughs] And it wasn’t again until I moved to Washington and I was having a meal with some friends and I was talking about a meal that I had had before, a meal that I wanted to have in the future, and they said, “what is up with you and food? You’re obsessed with food.” I said, “what else—what else do you want me to be obsessed with?”
SW: My fondest is probably lost bread.
KW: Pain perdu.
And can you describe what that is for the record?
SW: Lost bread is basically a breakfast version of bread pudding. It may be a little bit lighter but you—
KW: It’s a little like French toast.
SW: Right, like French toast; you basically take a day-old loaf of Leidenheimer French bread — I had to throw that in — and you cut it into slices and you dredge it in egg—
KW: And milk.
SW: —and milk and then you—
KW: A little bit of vanilla—
SW: With vanilla and milk and then you fry it in butter and you—
KW: In a cast iron skillet.
SW: Right, in a cast iron skillet so that you get black and brown on the edges and the crumb of the bread.
KW: And then sprinkle it with powdered sugar.
SW: And serve it with powdered sugar and/or cinnamon. The other way to make it is more like a bread pudding, where you actually do it in a casserole dish. You do all those things to it and then you can add raisins, grapes, or whatever you want to. I guess as a child you really don’t understand what an important part of your life a food culture really is — but it was something that was very important to my dad. You know he certainly stoked those fires in us, and I have the pleasure of being married to a nutritionist and—and I’m reminded of my food obsession almost daily…so—
I wanted to ask where you ate po-boys.
SW: Yeah, all over the place, but I remember the ones in the neighborhood — Audubon Tavern was a sort of a little bar and it had a full grill and they had wonderful po-boys on Magazine Street. We used to eat a lot at the old Campagno’s, which was on State and Magazine, which was the greatest roast beef po-boy in the world. We had Norby’s, which only recently closed, but we used to go there all the time, and then of course Domilise’s, Parasol’s—
SW: Oh yeah, sure, absolutely — that was the old Bright Star Restaurant on Panola and Burdette. Which may have had one of the finest shrimp po-boys. College Inn was always a—
KW: College Inn — we were there all the time.
I’d like to talk about your trucks because they have a very distinctive look.
SW: Well we turned 100 years old in 1996, and my father and I had been discussing a suitable event to mark that 100-year anniversary, and I had been thinking about different things, and I saw an article one day written by my friend Bunny Matthews in The Times Picayune, and it was a survey of po-boy shops. He went through I think four or five of them, and they all happened to be our customers, and in each one they mentioned that they got their bread from Leidenheimer, and it was really sort of a dream article for me. And on the cover Vic and Nat’ly Broussard, who were his two ageless, timeless characters that represent really the traditional New Orleans character, and I guess originally 9th Ward denizens, and really aficionados of all that is great about New Orleans including the Saints and eating the po-boys in your neighborhood bar. So I started thinking to myself, well who better to proclaim our 100th year anniversary than Vic and Nat’ly, who really represent New Orleans to me? I’ve always loved the cartoon, and I’ve really loved everything they represent because I do think that they’re a product of what makes New Orleans so unique. I think we have more characters per square block than any other city in America. And so I contacted Bunny and I said okay, here’s what I want to do. I think I want to put Vic and Nat’ly on my trucks. And he said, “wow.” I think he came over so quickly because he saw the opportunity to get free bread whenever he wanted it but — which he did and does — but he probably came over too quickly because even to this day he probably regrets ever having drawn the artwork for me, because now he’s known as, you’re the guy that did the bread trucks?
And what are they [Vic and Nat’ly] saying on the side of your truck?
KW: “Sink ya teeth into a piece a New
Orleans cultcha, a Leidenheimer po-boy!”—that’s in accent,
by the way.
SW: It’s just important to us that that culture never goes away, and I think the great thing about New Orleans is that we have a fine dining culture and we have a neighborhood dining culture, and I don’t think either one would be as special without the other. I’ll never forget when they interviewed Emeril after his star had started to rise, and I think Food and Wine magazine asked him what his favorite place to eat in New Orleans was, and it wasn’t one of the fancy white tablecloth restaurants. It was Uglesich’s and here’s this, you know, dive that served wonderful food in a working class neighborhood that most visitors would never go in. And of course it too took off like immediately.
Well y’all started a Po-Boy Preservation Society. Can you talk about that a little before we wrap up?
KW: Well that was something that Sandy had been thinking about for a long time, and when I started working here I had the time to focus on it. Basically, without throwing mud, we were very dismayed at the fact that national chains serving subs and subs, subs, and more subs were poaching on our market here, whereas when we were in high school those didn’t exist. I mean you went to po-boy shops, and there were always the McDonald’s and the Burger Kings, but those never competed with po-boy shops. But all of the sudden you had the national chains—the Subway(s) and the Quizno’s of the world — and you know we were just alarmed that young people…I mean, my brother has a 12 year-old and a 9 year-old, and some of their friends carry punch cards from Subway, and yet we were worried that they had never been down to Johnny’s Po-boys, or out to the Parkway, or out to Short Stop. We decided to try to do something about it and we called up not only our customers; we called up the people who were sort of the biggest in the market who, you know, could afford time and money to this cause. So we got people together and the response was just really, really good except that most of these people were owner-operators and they didn’t have a lot of time really to organize their efforts, so we kind of took on the administrative part of that and we were coming along really well…and then the hurricane happened. So it certainly has not died; we don’t want it to die. We do want to have a Po-Boy Festival one day. I think it’s just prudent to let it sit for a while and let everybody get back on their feet and get to a better place financially.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.