5 Generation Bakers Brings Jenny Lee Swirl Bread to the Masses

Thanks to online shoppers and QVC viewers, 5 Generation Bakers’ Jenny Lee Swirl Bread is now known nationwide.

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Jenny Lee is the most famous faux Southern belle from McKees Rocks.

The hoop skirt-clad silhouette of Jenny Lee graces every bagged loaf of bread — such as the iconic Classic Cinnamon — at 5 Generation Bakers, a family-owned business at 1100 Chartiers Ave. It was formerly known as Jenny Lee Bakery, one of many off-shoots of the original culinary enterprise started by German immigrant Michael Baker in 1875.

“When I opened 5 Generation Bakers a lot of people were confused,” says Scott Baker. “Why wouldn’t I just call it Jenny Lee?”

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Baker took over the operation from his father, Bernie Baker, in 2009. “I wanted to establish that we were a different business, a different strategy. But, since it’s been around for 70 years, it was too valuable of a brand to not use in some capacity.”

While sitting inside his office, Scott sings a little tune and smiles.

In 1938, his grandfather Paul Baker named the company after “Sweet Jennie Lee,” a 1930s-era song about a girl from “sunny Tennessee.” It’s been covered by dozens of musicians, from Lead Belly to Willie Nelson, but I’m sure all Pittsburghers will agree that “Jenny Lee” sounds best when uttered with a mouth full of cinnamon Swirl Bread.

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Each day, the bakery’s 35 employees make 8,000 of the crimped, cylindrical loaves. They go through 2,500 pounds of butter every three weeks and ship to restaurants, supermarkets and homes in all 50 states.

So, how did this dainty debutante, who has weathered decades of ups and downs in the Steel City, find nationwide success on QVC?

The pandemic changed people’s eating and shopping habits. Online ordering became the norm.

“Our e-commerce sales were up 1,000% during the first six months of COVID,” Scott says. “QVC food sales skyrocketed as well. By November of 2020, I went on-air for our first QVC sales. I was on a total of 11 times before the end of February 2021.”

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Headquartered in West Chester, Pa., since 1986, QVC — which stands for “Quality Value Convenience” — is a longtime leader in video-driven retail on TV, e-commerce sites, digital streaming and social media platforms. In its early days, QVC was driven by sales of clothing and jewelry brands. When food products were added to the mix more than a decade ago, sales began to rise like loaves of Jenny Lee Swirl Bread.

According to a QVC representative, each day QVC reaches 100 million viewers in the United States alone, with the company’s app contributing to between 40-60% of sales. The target age demographic is 45 and up, and some of those folks still dial the 1-800 number — but the amount of old-fashioned phone orders continues to dwindle every year.

And Scott has made a splash with viewers, especially when he demonstrates how each loaf of Swirl Bread is given a butter bath and hand-rolled in cinnamon and sugar.

He’s made the 5-hour drive to West Chester, outside of Philadelphia, several times, but he usually films his 8-minute segments at the bakery via Skype.

“We are up over 300% from last year, and that’s just QVC sales,” he says. “Overall sales are up 20%.”

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Friends from all across the country send him photos of Jenny Lee products they’ve seen on the breakfast menu at their local diner. Cinnamon Swirl Bread makes excellent French toast, but there are other sweet and savory varieties, from pumpkin pie and cranberry to Italian olive focaccia and garlic parmesan and herb.

It makes Scott happy to know folks on the West Coast are getting a taste of Pittsburgh.

When he took over the company, he decided to downsize the product line, which, in its heyday, made every conceivable kind of pastry. In 2006, a Thanksgiving Day fire at the Island Avenue facility put Jenny Lee out of commission for a few months. The Bakers turned the ovens back on in April 2007 only to be hit by a recession.

Bernie retired and Scott, a longtime worker for the company, found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. He re-grouped and wrote a business plan that separated 5 Generation Bakers from thousands of commercial bakeries across the country.

Now, inside of a 21,000-square-foot former grocery store, they focus on what they do best: Swirl Bread.

Although cinnamon swirl breads are found in small, retail bakeries the world over, Scott bet on the fact that no other entity could sell the labor-intensive loaves commercially and still maintain the same quality.

Made from cage-free eggs, the dough is naturally fermented before it gets sheeted, dusted with cinnamon, rolled and baked in stainless steel, crimp-style pans made by Chicago Metallic. 5 Generation Bakers owns 3,000 of the heavy, hinged devices and gets about 500 bakes from one before they must be sent back to be stripped down and recoated with a non-stick surface.

After emerging from the oven, the batch of 384 loaves is bathed in a mix of real butter, palm shortening and soy bean oil and tossed in a proprietary blend of cinnamon and sugar.

“It’s just another day at the beach,” Scott says with a laugh as he gestures to the light brown granules surrounding the equipment.

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The loaves are bagged — Bernie was manning that station during my visit — and placed in a 2,000-square-foot freezer. They’re shipped frozen on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They have a shelf-life of about 14 days. (Cinnamon is a natural mold inhibitor.)

In addition to bread, 5 Generation Bakers makes pizza dough, monkey bread and New Year’s pretzels.

Locally, you can find that Jenny Lee mascot at nearly every Shop ’n Save, all Giant Eagle Market Districts and many indie retailers.

Scott is proud he kept the family business in the Rocks. Many of the employees are from the area and there are several sets of relatives — brothers and sisters, husbands and wives — working side-by-side on the bakery floor. 5 Generation Bakers also employs people from Life’sWork, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities build life skills and workplace abilities.

Scott’s wife, Joella Richard Baker, runs Get Fit Families, an organization that helps Pittsburghers maintain healthy diets and lifestyles.

The irony of this is not lost on Scott.

“She makes ’em fit, I make ’em fat,” he says with a wink. “Jenny Lee Cinnamon Swirl Bread is always a staple at the races she organizes. People who are health-conscious enjoy our brand, too. It’s minimally processed with ingredients you can pronounce.”

And boy, does it look good on QVC.

5 Generations Bakers
McKees Rocks: 1100 Chartiers Ave.

Categories: PGHeats