A baker's baker
Ernest Nickles was a humble, dedicated person who, as the proverbial saying goes, had flour in his veins. He was enormously proud of his family’s business, the Alfred Nickles Bakery, Navarre, OH, which his father founded in 1909.
During his 70 years with the company, Mr. Nickles helped transform it from a home-delivery bakery to a regional wholesale business with five bakeries, 42 sales distribution branches and more than 500 routes serving grocery stores, restaurants and institutions in seven Midwestern states. Today, the full-line bakery produces everything from bread and buns to a variety of sweet goods.
According to the American Society of Baking (ASB), Mr. Nickles told people his hobby was golf, but he played only once a year. His hobby, in truth, was the family bakery.
“He worked seven days each and every week,” the ASB biography on Mr. Nickles observed. “He grew up in a home next to the bakery.”
Mr. Nickles joined his father as the bakery’s first sales manager in 1925. After marrying his childhood sweetheart from Navarre, Lucile “Cookie” Rowe, whose father was a baker, the young couple moved to a home one block from the bakery where they lived their entire lives. Mr. Nickles was known to check the bakery every single night.
His management style and dedication to the bakery was reflected in the regularly scheduled meetings that required immediate action and follow-through. Every Tuesday, the Navarre bakery, which eventually housed 13 lines, held a four-hour production meeting to sample products, improve quality and create new baked items. “Ernest was a person with an extraordinary sense of taste,” his biography noted. “He could actually identify flavorings in baked foods.”
Every afternoon, the company held a three-hour sales meeting where Mr. Nickles’ passion for growing the company’s business became renowned. Every Friday, the bakery held a three-hour planning meeting, which addressed production, maintenance and sanitation issues. “These meetings occurred 52 weeks a year without fail and without interruption,” his biography stated.
In 1949, Mr. Nickles became president and CEO after his father passed away. In 1955 at his urging, the company became a charter of The Long Co., an independent baking co-operative in Chicago. Over the years, the bakery’s management team also included his brother Edward, his brother-in-law David E. Gardner and his son-in-law Jim Gerber. Today, Mr. Nickles’ nephew David A. Gardner oversees the family business, which has nearly 1,600 employees.
In 1995, the day before he had a debilitating stroke that would eventually take his life, Mr. Nickles held a two-hour meeting with a young wholesale salesman on his last day of work before heading back to finish college. “He just wanted to learn more about Nickles Bakery from this young man,” his biography recalled. “You could say that Ernest worked right up to the day when he could no longer work.”