Practical Hampden bakery makes a whole lot of scents

Jacques Kelly

July 29, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The New System Bakery in Hampden employs a very effective sales device: It leaves some windows open.

At daybreak, the scents of honey-dipped doughnuts, raisin-cinnamon bread and Parker House rolls drift over 36th Street just east of Roland Avenue, attracting customers. By midafternoon, many of the products from the bakery's ovens are gone, devoured by those who swear by this house of flour.

"We survive today because we make everything from scratch. The cherries in our pies were cooked in that copper pot," says owner Bernard Breighner, pointing in the direction of the kitchen. "No commercial mixes are used here."

Grace Breighner, his wife, has a stack of baking product invoices to prove her point. There is real honey in the honey-dipped doughnuts. Each week, the bakers use dozens of 50-pound boxes of raisins, lots of Esskay butter in 68-pound blocks, and gallons of pure vanilla.

New System remains a neighborhood bakery, without any confusing French See titles or pretentious products. Customers use the standard Baltimore expression, "bun," to describe many of the wares displayed in the showcases.

Regular patrons recognize New System by its art-deco, cream-and-green facade in the heart of Hampden's business district. The windows, little changed from the 1930s, are filled with stainless steel cake holders that display the end products of the bakers' art.

Members of the all-female sales staff, in white uniforms, stand behind the counter. Dottie Comstock, the most senior of the counter ladies, says she has worked there so long she doesn't quite remember when she arrived. She worked for New System's founder, German baker John Ruthke.

A trio of seasoned bakers -- William Fortson, Johnny Morrison and Joseph Spivey -- jealously guard the decades-old recipes that make New System a legend. They also hate new equipment, preferring rolling pins, hands and intuition.

Why the name New System? Mr. Breighner explains that when the bakery opened in 1921 it was a novel concept. The whole operation is on one floor so that customers can walk in and look in the back of the shop and see the cakes, breads, buns and cookies come out of the ovens.

"Before then, Baltimore baking was traditionally done in the basements, the first floor was for selling and the family lived upstairs," Mr. Breighner says.

Except for a basement storage area, New System is all on one level, its hardwood floor surviving heavy punishment. It's obvious that previous generations of bakers were clean and took good care of the bakery. Even its pressed-tin ceiling survives. Massive doses of cross ventilation compensate for the lack of air conditioning in the preparation room.

"The heart of the bakery is the set of brick ovens. They're gas-fired and old. But our bakers know just where their hot spots and cool spots are. They can put a perfect crust on bread," Mr. Breighner says.

New System is renowned for both its sweets and its breads. When he was mayor, William Donald Schaefer had the peach cake once a week.

The raisin buns come in two varieties, chocolate or white iced. The butter crisp buns often vanish before noon. Each doughnut is cut by hand.

The variety of breads and rolls is amazing. Roland Park hostesses and local caterers know guests gobble up the house specialty, the "special sandwich roll," a medium-sized two-layered pocket of dough with a buttery interior. There's also a Parker House roll, named for the Chicago hotel. Regular customers often refer to it as a pocketbook roll or turnover roll.

The bakers also turn out a football-shaped dinner roll, a smaller salad roll and an even smaller mini-salad roll. For the holidays, they also make pan rolls and cloverleaf rolls.

"We specialize in service, and if people want rolls made a certain way, we're in business to give them what they want. This place was built on that kind of treatment," Mrs. Breighner says.

Mr. Breighner puts his recipe for success another way: "People come in here and say the raisin bun tastes every bit as good as it did when they were a child."

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