Adapting to technology and listening to customers and employees are main ingredients in their recipe for success
Gumbo, crawfish etouffee, turtle soup, BBQ shrimp, oysters Rockefeller, snowballs, king cakes, pralines, beignets and bananas foster are all traditional New Orleans comfort foods. Add the po-boy to that list, have it ‘dressed’ on Leidenheimer French Bread (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and mayo) and the list is complete!
Leidenheimer Baking Company celebrated their 125th anniversary last year, standing with only a handful of other New Orleans family-owned businesses who have been in operation for over a century. Current President and owner of Leidenheimer Baking Co., Sandy Whann (Robert J. Whann IV) says this is a anniversary to remember. Baking bread for family-owned restaurants and family dinner tables has always been the Leidenheimer way, a true constant in the lives of New Orleanians. Whann is grateful to the city for allowing his family to make a living, in turn allowing restaurant owners to do the same. This anniversary means everything to him and his family.
“We’ve always valued our relationships with the many restauranteurs and po-boy shop owners in New Orleans and the surrounding areas,” Whann said. “That gave our entire family a great sense of pride, and really a mission. We knew that what we did provided for them to make a living.”
Whann is fourth generation at Leidenheimer. Now his son William and daughter Katie open doors as the fifth generation. Katie runs social media marketing, while William helps with day-to-day operations. Whann’s sister Katherine runs all administrative and back of the house operations, while his brother-in-law is head of operations.
His daughter Katie feels eternally grateful knowing she is part of “New Orleans cultcha.” It is plainly put by famous cartoon embodiments of New Orleans Vic and Nat’ly, created by late local artist Bunny Matthews, vibrantly printed on the side of local Leidenheimer distribution vans.
“We take pride in being a part of something that is so engrained in the culture of this city,” Katie said. “This city means a lot to us. Having the opportunity to be part of something much bigger than just our family.”
It was Sandy’s great grandfather George H. Leidenheimer who founded the bakery in 1896. A baker from Deidesheim, Germany, he traveled to New Orleans to be with cousins who were also bakers. The bakery honored his German roots, but Leidenheimer soon noticed a greater demand for French bread from his customers.
French bread gained its popularity in the 20th century and gave rise to the po-boy sandwich during the streetcar strike of 1929. It was the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, who fed out-of-work streetcar operators for free, as “poor-boys,” from their French Market coffee stand. Leidenheimer passed away in 1918, not living to see the fruition of the “poor-boy” sandwich. Whann believes his great grandfather is looking down upon New Orleans in awe of the evolution of his French bread.
“He would probably be amazed at the technology that we’ve been able to implement, where we’ve remained faithful to the formulas and to the process, but we’ve used technology to make it more consistent,” said Whann. “He’d find it to be, hopefully, the same as when he made it. Of course, he was not making the same exact products that we are today. In the early days, his products were far more European in influence, in terms of heavier, more brown dense breads from his native Germany. As the wonderful melting pot that was, and is New Orleans, it became more the French bread that we enjoy today.”
Whann credits his employees and customers for being the reason Leidenheimer has been able to adapt in challenging times. His bottom line is to always be there for his employees and customers.
“We want to be there for our employees,” Whann said. “They’re here for us, we want to be here for them. You have to listen to your employees, and you have to listen to your customers. And really listen and understand what they need.”
His family bakery has seen New Orleans in tough times, through many global milestones like the Spanish flu and both World Wars, but Leidenheimer has remained resilient. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.
“There is a sense in the restaurant industry, particularly in New Orleans, that we’re all in this thing together, and I think COVID-19 has really amplified that,” Whann said. “It has been the dedication of many longtime employees, managers and customers who have been very understanding.”
Another key ingredient to Leidenheimer’s success has been growing a presence on social media. Katie Whann is fifth generation and has taken the bakery to Instagram to meet their audience, aka “fans,” Katie calls them.
“We created an Instagram account and revamped our website at the same time. Doing both of those in tandem opened our eyes to a whole new world which has been really fantastic,” said Katie. “It has given us the opportunity to communicate with restaurants across the country.”
The restaurant scene in New Orleans is very tight knit. That relationship between restauranteurs, restaurants, and their patrons has only strengthened since the start of the pandemic. Whann stands as witness to just how important these restaurants are in the daily lives of New Orleanians, and all around the state of Louisiana.
“Our neighborhood restaurants, our sandwich shops, our wonderful French Quarter white tablecloth restaurants, all play a role in many families’ lives in this city. It is a spiritual relationship here,” says Whann. “There is something that we get from gathering in these restaurants with our friends, our families, our loved ones. These restauranteurs and their employees are like extended parts of our own family.”
Whann is a firm believer that the restaurant community of New Orleans will move past the struggles of COVID-19 and continue to safely provide a space for families to gather and share meals for years to come. It is the city’s historic family-owned restaurants who keep the oil lamps burning with hope.
“If you’re ever at a table and overhear a beloved waitress greeting a regular customer and asking about their family, their grandmother, the new grandchild - it is an uplifting experience that they have kept going through COVID-19,” Whann said. “We all need healing from this thing, and what they provide to me, and to so many others, is invaluable. It’s remarkable what they do, particularly under the circumstances in which they’ve had to do it.”
The circumstances for Leidenheimer haven’t been easy either. During quarantine of 2020, and after Hurricane Ida blew through South Louisiana, the office staff transitioned to remote work, but the bakery is where the magic happens.
“It’s next to impossible to remotely bake bread,” Whann explains. “We can outfit their homes with modems, but we can’t outfit them with tunnel ovens and mixers.”
It was no small feat, but the bakery continued to drop bags of fresh bread to customers and feed frontline workers through partnerships with local vendors and the #loavesoflove campaign. Whann listened and jumped in without hesitation when President of JMH Hospitality Glen Armantrout, which owns Mahony’s Po-boys & Seafood, approached him with the idea for #loavesoflove.
“I called up Leidenheimer, among others including Blue Plate, Tabasco, Chisesi, and rallied the forces,” said Armantrout. “For every tray that someone bought, the second one was delivered free of charge to a front-line location choice. It took off. We ended up preparing nearly 10,000 meals.”
Armantrout attests to how much of a pillar Leidenheimer has been for the New Orleans restaurant community, and the taste of their French bread has been unmatched for decades.
“Leidenheimer bread in simplest terms is ‘perfect,’” Armantrout said. “It’s got that nice crunch on the exterior and a billowy, pillow-like inside. They’ve been consistent with us, and they’re good friends of the restaurant and always have been.”
Paul Rotner, CEO of Acme Oyster House and former board member of the LRAEF, knows his po-boy’s are not complete without being served on the “best French bread in the world.” Acme Oyster House offers a ‘10 napkin roast beef po-boy’ on their menu, and Rotner vows “you need every one, plus 10 more” to enjoy the traditional New Orleans gravy-soaked delicacy on Leidenheimer bread.
Whann was born and raised in New Orleans, and has seen his French bread become a “tasty blank canvas” for chefs all over the country.
“We happen to be in a city with the most talented chefs and restauranteurs in the country,” Whann says, “and to sit back and watch what they do with our product is very rewarding.”
Tujague’s Restaurant has been in business since 1856, celebrating their 165th anniversary last year. Executive Chef Gus Martin loves Leidenheimer bread and has used it as an essential ingredient throughout his culinary career. “Leidenheimer is a staple in New Orleans cooking,” Martin said. “From the beginning of the meal to the end.”
The Leidenheimer influence is clear. With its unmistakable flaky top and light, airy inside, their bread is truly a New Orleans original. Let us not forget either, the famous muffuletta buns they sell, and the ‘pistolet’ dinner loaves that restaurant guests break bear handed while awaiting their meal. You’ll even eat a slice or two served with a side of gumbo, or drenched in rum sauce as bread pudding. Leidenheimer is New Orleans culture you can eat.
“Their bread has influenced so many great dishes of our city. I’ve used their bread throughout the majority of my career,” said Martin. “I love the versatility of their bread in my cooking at Tujague’s.”
Ralph Brennan has been serving guests at his family restaurants for decades, and has “served Leidenheimer bread in our restaurants for a long as I can remember,” he said.
As Brennan’s is celebrating its 75th anniversary, he is grateful to Whann and his family who have “been great supporters of our community and our industry.”
Fifty years from now, Whann hopes Leidenheimer will still be a family-run operation, and that the work he and his family are doing now will pave the way for Leidenheimer’s success.
“I hope were still focused on our customers,” Whann said. “I’m confident, that if we’re in business and successful, we will continue to focus on quality. I hope we’ve been able to create an environment that offers our employees the opportunity to grow, and is a place that our employees would recommend to their friends as a rewarding place to work. If those things are happening 50 years from now, I know we’ll be a successful company.”
It is the bakery’s legacy of quality and customer service that he hopes will remain once it is time to pass the torch, or loaf, if you will.
By Nicole Koster
Story originally posted on February 16, 2022.