Bakery Blast

photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Dear Vance: My mother says that when she worked downtown many years ago, the best place to get doughnuts and cakes was the Federal Bakery. What happened to this establishment? — F.T., Memphis

Dear F.T.: I’m happy to tell you that it blew up.

Well, perhaps I should explain. Maybe “happy” isn’t the right word, especially since several people were seriously injured that September morning more than 50 years ago. But when I received your query, I halfway expected that I would only be able to tell you when this bakery opened, where it was located, and when it closed. Pretty ho-hum.

So imagine my surprise as I was looking through old Press-Scimitar newspaper clippings at the University of Memphis Special Collections Department and pulled one out headlined, “Downtown Area Rocked At Dawn.” That was unexpected.

But wait — let me first set the stage for this drama. The Federal Bake Shop was part of a national chain, which opened a Memphis branch downtown at 119 Madison way back in 1923. It soon became a popular place for hundreds of downtown workers to pick up doughnuts and coffee on their way to the office, or for shoppers to grab a quick snack during lunch. As you can see in these nice old photos taken in 1947, the exterior of the bakery was quite spiffy-looking, with its gleaming black, white, and stainless-steel panels. The interior was stark-white to the point of being sterile, but who cared about that when those glass cases were just packed with doughnuts and cakes and cookies and plenty of other things to satisfy your sweet tooth?

The place didn’t look quite so spic-and-span after September 26, 1955. Early that morning, an employee, Ben Batsel, fired up the bakery’s big gas ovens. A few hours later, he noticed that they had apparently gone out, so he looked inside, struck a match, and … BOOM!

The blast from the buildup of gas knocked him and another baker across the building, sending them both to the hospital with first- and second-degree burns. According to newspaper accounts, “the explosion was heard throughout downtown Memphis. The glass front door and windows of the shop were blown out as well as all the windows in the rear. Glass was scattered for 100 feet up and down Madison Avenue.” 

Before the blast.

After the blast.

Both men were lucky they weren’t killed, and they eventually recovered from their burns. After a few weeks, the bakery was able to return to business as normal.

But the changing face of downtown eventually closed the Federal Bake Shop. You have to remember that following the death here of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, downtown became a ghost town. After struggling to survive — when the sales dropped from $175 in that first hour to $50 for the whole morning — the bakery’s corporate owners decided to close in 1976.

The store manager wasn’t happy, as you might imagine, complaining that he was now losing more than $1,000 a week. “In the clothing business, that’s not much,” said Bill Fraser, “but for a bakery, it’s big. Business started falling off about a year ago. We used to have a tremendous birthday cake and wedding cake business. But office girls just buy one of something, and the only shoppers left are people who work downtown.”

He was disgusted with the brand-new “Mid-America Mall” (as it was then called), just a block away: “This lousy mall, it’s not going to help anything. Taking buses off Main Street was a mistake. What businesses did it help?” 

Fraser’s wife, Betty, was even more vocal, blaming “purse snatchings, winos, panhandlers, and foul language” on the store’s decline — and most of downtown’s too. 

“The first thing they should do is make it safe for women downtown,” she told the Press-Scimitar. “It makes you so uncomfortable, it’s pathetic. I think the whole atmosphere of the town is dirty.”

Memphis wasn’t alone, though. In other cities, Federal Bake Shops closed their downtown locations and opened branches in suburban shopping centers and malls. A company official said Federal had considered that possibility here, but “couldn’t find anything suitable and so decided to close down completely.” Federal sold its last doughnuts on March 27, 1976.

Newspapers reported, “The closing will be traumatic for the longtime customers, many of whom first entered the shop with their parents in the days when it was second nature to shop downtown and watch cake decorators at work.”

One woman asked reporters, “What am I going to do for my doughnuts?” Perhaps that was your mother, F.T. Though the bakery is long gone, the stunning four-story building on Madison, with its wonderful terra-cotta façade, is now standing empty and waiting for a tenant.


Confectionery Question

Dear Vance: I recently turned up this vintage photo for Anderson’s Confectionery and wondered if you could tell me anything about this business.
— D.G., Memphis

Dear D.G.: I really like this old photo. The fog around the edges gives it a dreamlike quality, and I have to admit that — since I wasn’t familiar with the establishment — I first assumed it wasn’t even in Memphis. 

But then I squinted at that street post on the corner and could make out “N. Manassas” so that gave me a place for my detective work to begin.

Here’s what I found out. There were actually two Ridley Andersons in Memphis — a father and son — and both were involved in the candy-making business here. As far as I can tell, Ridley Sr. got his start by working as a foreman for the Queen City Candy Company, located downtown on South 4th Street, sometime around 1919. By the mid-1920s, he had opened his own place, called Anderson’s Confectionery, at 318 Beale Street. He owned the business, and his son, Ridley Jr., managed it.

But that is not the building shown here. Stay with me now.

Candy making must have been a popular business back then, because the city directories list almost 40 different “confectioneries” in the mid-1920s. You’ll find the big names that longtime Memphians remember — Fortune’s and Dinstuhl’s, for instance — along with other interesting establishments: the Brown Betty Candy Shop, Martha Washington Candy Shop, and the Red Rose Palace.

Now, I can only glean so much from old city directories, but sometime around 1930, it seems the father got out of the candy business and took a job as a “captain” at The Peabody. Meanwhile, his son soldiered on, and in 1938, Ridley Anderson Jr. opened Anderson’s Confectionery shown here, in a former residence at Manassas and Lane. This was a busy intersection back then; nearby businesses included WeOna Food Store #130, Davis Sundries, the Streamline Café, Whalen Liquor Store, and Phillips Barber Shop.

Anderson, who lived down the street at 432 N. Manassas, stayed in business here until 1954, when he closed the candy store and took a job with the Tennessee Employment Security Office. He held that job until he retired sometime before 1970; he died in 1975 at the age of 74. His old store went through other owners, housing Jimmy’s Café and Davis’ Café, before being demolished. The site at Manassas and Lane is now a vacant lot.

Anderson's Confectionery photo courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin Hooks Central Library 

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