Gai's Northwest Bakeries: A Seattle Institution and Baking Powerhouse for More Than 50 Years

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/06/2018
  • Essay 20576
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For a good part of the last century, Gai's Northwest Bakeries was Seattle's largest bakery, supplying high-end restaurants and fast-food chains alike, and stocking area grocery stores with breads and rolls. Italian immigrant Giglio Gai built the business, and his sons Phil and Henry -- whose cartoon images adorned the company's ubiquitous delivery trucks -- turned it into a powerhouse. Rita Cipalla's history of the Gai family and their iconic bakery appeared in L'Italo-Americano in August 2017 and is reproduced here with permission.

Seattle's Largest Bakery

From Seattle's finest dining establishments to the local McDonald's, from grocery stores to the Space Needle Restaurant, Gai's Northwest Bakeries was a popular supplier of breads and rolls for the better part of the twentieth century.

The bakery was started by Giglio Gai, an immigrant from Roccella Ionica, Calabria, who arrived in Seattle in 1904 at the age of 14. By the 1920s, Giglio was baking French bread in a brick oven in his home and then delivering it door-to-door to his customers.

Giglio opened New Home Bakery in 1931 in Seattle's Central District. A decade later, he purchased the Seattle French Baking Co. from another well-known Italian food purveyor, the DeLaurenti family, and changed the business name to Gai's Seattle French Baking. Giglio's hard work was starting to pay off, and the company was on its way to becoming the top specialty-bread baker in the state.

All three of Giglio's children, including daughter Rose, helped out. But it was sons Phil and Henry, who took over the company following Giglio's death in 1953, who turned it into a baking powerhouse. Gai's Northwest Bakeries became Seattle's largest bakery, churning out some $200 million worth of bread a year.

Brothers Henry and Phil

Even if Gai's bread was not on your weekly shopping list, it was hard to escape seeing the company's quirky "mascots" around town, prominently featured on the back doors of the bread-delivery trucks.

Two cartoon characters, both very 1950s-looking in the way they were drawn and in their manner of dress, peered out from the back of the truck. One fellow was wearing a toque and round-rimmed glasses; the other had on an apron, shirt, and necktie. "Drive carefully! The loaf you save may be your own!" one of the characters was saying.

What most Seattle residents did not know was that the cartoons depicted the Gai brothers themselves. The taller one with spectacles and chef hat was Henry. His shorter dark-haired companion was his brother, Phil.

The brothers appeared on other promotional products, as well. A circular metal lapel button created to hand out to customers showed Henry wearing an old-fashioned signboard on which was printed "Really Good!" Standing next to him was Phil, smartly dressed in a three-piece suit and holding a loaf of crusty bread. "Henry and Phil Gai are personal friends of mine," proclaimed the custom button.

The brothers were as different in their personalities as they were in their physical appearance. Henry, known as Mr. Inside, tended to Gai's baking operations and was in charge of administration and the physical plant. Phil, known as Mr. Outside, was more outgoing and gregarious, known for his sense of humor. Not surprisingly, Phil was the company's chief salesman in charge of market development and distribution. He had a passion for cake decorating and loved to hunt and fish.

"Henry had a huge office up high in the bakery where he could look out over all the ovens and mixers and packagers," recalled one local contractor who worked with Gai's in the 1970s. "He had on all white baking clothes, the hat you see [in the ad] and he was covered with flour ... Later, I met Phil and he was nattily dressed and drove a big radio-equipped station wagon. When some fancy restaurant was short of specialty baked goods, Phil was radioed and he hot-footed an order right over."

Flexibility and Nimbleness

Phil and Henry began to diversify the product line and seek new customer markets, expanding the business from supplying restaurants to selling to fast-food chains. Gai's began baking hamburger buns for several local fast-food establishments, including Dag's drive-in chain, and then secured the account to supply hamburger buns to McDonald's. Eventually, Gai's provided burger buns to most of the big fast-food chains in the area, including Burger King, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, and Red Robin.

Flexibility and nimbleness were hallmarks of Gai's Northwest Bakeries and key factors in its success. When the Space Needle Restaurant needed French bread delivered twice a day, seven days a week, Gai's accommodated them. When customers said they preferred to buy their bread sliced rather than whole, Gai's made it happen.

The main bakery was a hubbub of activity -- machines whirred and clacked, flour dust filled the air and speckled the floor. Hamburger buns were turned out at a rate of 760 a minute on an automated production line operated by just 13 people.

By the 1980s, the business employed more than 1,400 workers in bread mills from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland, Oregon. A fleet of 480 bread trucks delivered loaves, rolls, and buns throughout the Northwest.

In 1992, Gai's merged with the San Francisco French Bread Company to form Pacific Coast Bakeries, the largest wholesale baking company on the West Coast. This joint enterprise produced up to four million pounds of bread products a week.

At the end of the 1990s, once again responding to customer demand, Gai's developed a rustic bread line called Pane di Paolo to compete with the artisan bread market then gaining in popularity. A team of six bakers produced 20 Pane di Paolo loaves a minute, almost a snail's pace compared to the hundreds of hamburger buns coming off the assembly line in the same amount of time.

In 1997, the Gai's brand was sold to U.S. Bakery, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the holding company for Franz breads. The whimsical cartoon image of the Gai brothers is no longer seen on the delivery trucks as they make their rounds up and down Seattle streets. Henry Gai died in 1983 and his brother Phil in 2005.

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