The corner at Butler and Hudson streets is bustling, perhaps one of the busiest in Trenton’s Chambersburg neighborhood. Delivery trucks double park, customers angle for tight parking spots, and residents walk toward their homes with red, green, and white bags containing fresh Italian bread, most likely the signature two-foot sesame-seeded bread stick.
A worn mural on the corner brick building declares the Italian Peoples Bakery “The Pride of Chambersburg.” Especially this year, on the bakery’s 80th anniversary, there is much to be proud of.
Carmen Guagliardo and his son Matthew are no doubt inside, running the business started by Carmen’s grandfather in 1936. It is not easy to keep any family business going, especially one where production can depend on the humidity, the inventory is perishable, and national supermarket chains nip at your customer base by offering one-stop shopping.
But the lure of fresh baked bread daily — actually several times daily — has kept customers returning to Italian Peoples all these years. The bakery has also adapted to a changing neighborhood ethnicity, offering Spanish-style pastries like tres leches (sponge cake with three kinds of milk — evaporated, condensed, and cream), ingredients like pineapple, and breads that are sweeter and lighter.
In turn, the new neighbors have learned to love the Italian bread and rolls. “Not too many people can get fresh bread all day,” says Carmen.
The bakery has withstood fads (cake pops) and health focuses like gluten-free and sugar-free products (“They don’t sell,” says Carmen.) It co-exists with the showpiece products from New Jersey colleague Cake Boss and creates its own fondant showpieces. Matthew notes that the regular cupcakes outsell the gourmet cupcakes, and that Italian Peoples customers would rather eat a kaiser roll than a brioche.
Customers depend on the store in their daily routine. During a recent power outage it was clear that their daily bread was missing. “People depend on their kaiser roll,” Matthew says.
The mission is simple: fresh bread and rolls with no preservatives. And cake and deli too.
“We do the same thing every day,” says Carmen.
Genial and humble, Carmen has been driving trucks since age 11, delivering bread with his dad. His grandfather, Pasquale Gervasio, was a 14-year-old stowaway in 1912, and it is said he survived on lemons. Once in the Trenton area, he worked in bakeries and pizza shops, rising to be foreman for a competitor, and learned to knead by hand.
He took in dough from neighbors and had a knack for knowing when each batch was ready. He opened a Hamilton Avenue bakery with a single brick oven. He wanted to call it the Peoples Bakery, but the name was taken. He wife suggested the name Italian Peoples Bakery. On April 1, 1956, the family honored the original intent when the Italian Peoples Bakery was incorporated.
Gervasio died in 1955 at a young 57 years old. His wife, Margaret, had five children, and she marshaled them and their spouses to help run the company. “My father (Joe) was an in-law, he was a foreman at General Motors, and he gave up a lot to come to the bakery,” says Carmen, who at one time delivered bread house to house.
The second generation developed the wholesale business with deliveries to delis, supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, government facilities, and homes. The retail store moved, and pastries were added when a competitor went out of business in the early 1960s. Originally Danish pastry rings and cheese pockets were delivered from a New York bakery, but today those items and much more are made on the premises. Matthew’s favorite is a vanilla and chocolate cake with cannoli cream filling.
They added the deli in 1960 when an uncle was looking for something to put in the rolls. In 1976 the company recognized that the population was migrating to the suburbs and responded by opening eight satellite retail stores from 1976 to 1990. Current satellite stores are in Mercerville, Yardville, Mansfield, and West Trenton in New Jersey, and Morrisville and Levittown, Pennsylvania. Guagliardo’s parents still run the Levittown and Mercerville stores. Three are company-owned and three are franchises. The bread, rolls, and pastries are produced at the main facility to maintain quality control.
The suburban crowd wanted more diversity in products. So sourdough rye was added when Italian Peoples acquired Frey’s Baking Company in 1986. Peoples also acquired a neighborhood competitor, New Colonial Bakery, which was adjacent to the company’s plant. The new space expanded the packing and distribution area and allowed an expanded conveyor system.
Additional neighborhood real estate was purchased and the bakery went through a $1 million upgrade in 2000. Several years ago a three-tiered oven was shipped in from Italy.
Of the 100 employees in sales, administration, and production, some 30 are bakers. “There are many great employees who want to work here,” says Carmen. “They fit in with us. We get them as kids. We turn them into bakers.”
The simple mission belies a complex business. The $5 million in sales doesn’t take into account associated costs. “If you are the best bakery you net 5 to 6 percent,” Carmen says. They output 27,000 dozen rolls, 67,500 loaves, and use 45,000 pounds of flour a week — 450 bags, blown into a silo. Their retail/wholesale ratio is 70/30, but they would prefer 75/25.
It’s quite a legacy. Matthew carries it on. He has a sister who prefers the banking field. But as a young teen, Matthew helped his family as a bagger at the register. “It gets in your blood,” he says. He has a college business degree, and Carmen studied accounting, but they both prefer the bakery. Matthew loves the community connections. He loved that in Disney World with his family someone recognized his Italian Peoples shirt.
He has worked every holiday since he was 12. Christmas, with its tri-color red, white, and green bread, is the busiest, but Easter is busiest for pastry. Thanksgiving is big for pies. On Christmas the lines at some of the locations are around the block. During Christmas week the orders don’t stop — walk-in purchases for trays of cookies, supermarket wholesaler customers calling and saying, “I need 100 dozen rolls. How soon can you get them here?”
Says Carmen, “I learned that being home on a holiday is working close to home — you are not traveling.” Carmen keeps his cell on 24 hours a day. He relishes and loves the work.
On regular non-holiday times, father and son put in 12-hour days. The retail store is open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the plant, 365 days a year. It doesn’t pay to close since they have to prepare for the next day.
The bread business is one of constantly thinking ahead. “You have to think 24 hours ahead,” said Matthew. “The product is aged and proofed ahead of the orders, so you have to estimate orders because people rarely order ahead. We try to anticipate. We keep records.”
The bread aging process is slow and deliberate. “I think of how my grandfather made bread and kept punching it,” says Carmen wistfully. “There are doughs now that don’t need a long time, but we keep a balance between total mechanization and the original process.”
The biggest challenge is not the delicate process of making bread — that they have conquered. It’s location, location, location. Carmen and Matthew are looking forward to the renovation of the former Roebling steel factory into apartments and retail space. They hope it breathes more life into Trenton. Ironically, the former Roebling plant and its 24-hour shifts fueled the bakery’s 24-hour operation years ago. Some of the suburban stores are near high density neighborhoods, but then the supermarkets are competitors.
The future may require expansion. Carmen and Matthew would like to see another company-owned store in one of the fast-growing Trenton suburbs.
And they will have to see what the next generation might want to do. Right now Matthew’s young children tell their dad they prefer his bread to rolls in a restaurant. They love to play in the bakery and pretend to bake.
“We’re here. We’re staying,” said Matthew. Carmen agrees and says, “We will keep a presence in Trenton.”
After all, it’s only one generation to the 100th anniversary.
Italian Peoples Bakery, 63 Butler Street, Trenton. Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., 365 days a year. (609) 394-7161 or italianpeoplesbakery.com.