Auction at Stella D’oro: Nostalgia for Some, Bargain Hunting for Others

Ovens the size of pick-up trucks.  Mixing bowls bigger than bathtubs.  Baking trays and conveyer belts. Those were the kinds of items auctioned off on Tuesday at the Stella D’oro cookie factory in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, which closed its doors in October after nearly 80 years.  The factory shut down after a yearlong labor dispute could not be resolved.  Nearly 140 employees, some of whom had worked there for more than three decades, lost their jobs.


Neil Aprea, right, confers with another bidder at Stella D'oro baking headquarters in the Bronx, where equipment was auctioned Tuesday. Aprea's 82-year-old mother worked at the factory for many years. Photo by Dan Lieberman

Bakers, scrap collectors and several former employees gathered at the factory just after 10 a.m. to bid on equipment, some of which had been inside the bakery since it first opened its doors in 1932. The breadstick line that made the factory famous, along with several 200-foot ovens used to produce various kinds of cookies, were available to the highest bidder.

More than 40 people made bids, while 35 others made their bids through the company’s Web site, said Brian Hayes, site coordinator for Rabin Worldwide Inc., the industrial auction firm handling the sale.

Several former employees sat three rows from the front to watch the factory, where they had spent much of their adult life working, sold off piece by piece.

“Four dough troughs.  You can scrap that for sure!”  the auctioneer, Rich Reese announced.

“Buyer No. 3013: $32,000 for the oven!” Reese exclaimed.

One former employee, who would identify himself only as Luigi, worked at the factory for 31 years.  All morning long he watched the projector in disbelief, as it displayed images of the machines he had worked on. “I’m through,” he said bitterly.  “Thirty-one  years and I’m through. After today you won’t see me here.  I won’t even pass on the Major Deegan Expressway anymore.”

But for Richard Zinn, who rebuilds and sells bagel and bakery equipment, the auction marked an opportunity to turn a profit.  His winning bid of $20,000 earned him three mixers and four bowls.  “When you rebuild, you get $30,000 profit,” Mr. Zinn said.

Other people had less luck.   “We looked at the ovens but they’re too big,” said Wendy Friedman, co-owner of RW Delights Inc., a dessert manufacturer known for its “heavenly soufflé,” which  employs five people in its  bakery.

The protracted dispute at Stella D’oro between unionized workers and the current owner involved proposed cuts to employee health and retirement benefits.  While the bakery was family-owned until 1992, it had since changed hands three times.  In 2006, Kraft sold the company to a private equity group, Brynwood Partners, which sold the company in September to North Carolina-based Lance Inc. The new owner is moving Stella D’oro’s operations to a factory in Ohio.

“The mystique and nostalgia is gone,” said Jim Greenberg, whose company, Union Standard Equipment Co., worked on auction logistics.   “The modern-day bakery, candy and food companies are globalized now.  It’s all about numbers.”

But for some, like Neil Aprea, whose 82-year-old mother, Judith Conte, worked at the factory on the conveyer line, the mystique and the nostalgia aren’t going anywhere.

“They’ve been here forever,” said Mr.Aprea, 55.  “It’s like a landmark.  You pass it on 87 and you smell the cookies, no more.”

“You think something like this will last forever.”

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