March 17, 2010

Bakers, born and bread

— Q: Did you work somewhere before this?

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tues., May 6, 2008 John Amato and his brother Anthony are co-owners of Amato's Bakery in Westbrook.

A: No, this is it. It's been almost 25 years full time and close to 30 overall, through high school. Good thing I have job security! I don't know how to do anything else.

Q: What would you be doing in another life?

A: You know, it's hard to say. I'm the fourth generation in the business, and it's the only thing I've ever done.

Q: What was your first job at the bakery?

A: I used to go all over Portland on the delivery route with my father, John Sr. We'd go in at about 4 in the morning, get done at 11 or 12, and when we got back I would bake with my grandfather (Anthony). He was old back then, but he was the one who really showed me the ropes, how to bake. My grandfather was working the second shift, doing the specialty breads before the night crew came in. He was in his late 70s when he passed away in 1988. So yes, he was the son of the founder, Giovanni.

Q: And this was in a different location?

A: The original bakery, at 67 India St. It's now Coffee By Design. My great-grandfather bought that building in 1898, I believe, then started the whole business (selling sandwiches) in 1902. So my great-grandparents founded the whole company, the stores and the bakery. My family sold the bakery to Dominic Reali back in 2000. I sold that India Street building in 1997 or 1998. Everything in there was original. It was 1,800 square feet at most, and we were bursting at the seams.

Q: And now?

A: It's 10,000 square feet. So we've grown! I mean, that much space, three loading docks, it's state-of-the-art now. We looked at a lot of buildings in the area, but here we're in a nice executive park, very convenient for the tractor-trailers that bring in flour. We looked at a lot of buildings in the area, but this one worked and continues to work.

Q: Do you still do specialty breads?

A: Oh, yeah. For example, whole wheat, rye, an egg dough which is like an egg bun, yellow in color. Poppy seed rolls. We're just coming out with a flavored dough line, pesto and sun-dried tomato rolls.

Q: For?

A: We do a lot of business with Sysco, at the other end of the business park. But the bulk of our business is in the Amato's sandwich shops and franchise stores. I think there are 30, with more opening up for the year. The accounts include all of Maine Med. We make all the bread for a lot of people. We make all the bread for DiMillo's Floating Restaurant and have since the early 1950s, when Tony (DiMillo) came back from the Korean War and opened his first place on Fore Street, halfway up the hill. One of my longtime customers is Severino's in Westbrook. We do DiPietro's in South Portland and I do a lot of the school departments -- Cheverus and Westbrook and Waynflete and Gorham.

Q: How many Italian sandwich rolls do you bake a day?

A: I don't calculate production that way. But we used 1.1 million pounds of flour last year. So that's quite a bit of flour. We get it in 100-pound bags.

Q: What are the biggest shops? How many rolls do they go through in a day?

A: South Portland, the flagship store at India Street and Washington Avenue. In summer, Oak Hill in Scarborough. It varies, but, for example South Portland would do 150 to 200 packages a day, with six rolls to a package.

Q: You're hands-on?

A: Oh, yeah! We have about 30 employees, but every day, it's hands-on. I'm on the road quite a bit now, dealing with any technical issues, if any businesses have problems, or showing them new ways to use our pizza dough and so on.

Q: So you work a lot of hours?

A: It's not unusual for me to work 12 to 14 hours in a day. But things as a whole are much easier, a little more normal so to speak, since Dominic bought the business. It's been very good to me and my brother and I guess our whole family, but now a lot of the stresses are gone. And it's great that we're fully automated now. Forklifts go in and out of the freezers, it's a very nice setup, very easy.

Q: I've always thought an Amato's in London would be a massive hit.

A: I work out at Planet Fitness, and I met a young kid from New Zealand who told me that an Amato's in Australia or New Zealand would be huge.

Q: Is the Italian sandwich roll made from the original recipe from more than 100 years ago?

A: Actually, it really is. I can remember my grandfather showing it to me. Of course, everything changes to keep up with the times, but for the most part it's just about the same. The same style pans that were used 30 years ago, just a newer version. And of course the mixes are pretty much the same, but you can't make (the bread) the exact same way because it would not be labor-friendly. It was a different era. They mixed in a big bowl and let it set for hours. The scope of things was so small. Now it's all about labor and saving money and producing the most you can in the least amount of time. But I have to say, the recipe is just about what it was.

Q: How's the price of flour affecting you?

A: Our flour has gone up 88 percent since October '07. I've had to pass along three price increases since then. When I graduated in 1984, we were paying $11 per bag. Now it's more than triple that. I'm on contract pricing because I buy so many trailers a month, but for the baker who buys week-to-week, it's outrageous.

Q: Is there anything that makes you wish you'd been born into a different family and business?

A: In the summer when it's 95 degrees and nice and humid, and I think about people who are lucky enough to have a job where it's air-conditioned, I always say, 'Why did my great-grandparents have to start a bakery?' It's hot, it's dusty. We have so many ovens continually opening and closing, air-conditioning would just be a losing battle. It's not as bad as it used to be on India Street, but that's the only reason I would be driving into work saying, 'Why?'

Q: Not all brothers could work in harness.

A: It really does work well for us. My brother's up at 4 a.m. to do deliveries, then does bread production with me. A lot of people kinda laugh that we've been working together so long and still go boating and skiing together. Next February we're taking a real vacation together for the first time in 30 years, going on a cruise.

Q: Will a fifth generation go into the business?

A: My daughter (Brianna) loves coming in to help out in the office. I tell my daughter it's been very good to me, but it's a hard life being a baker because of the hours, the heat and it's just very physically demanding. I tell her all the time, just try something different. She has plans to go off to college, and I'm behind her all the way. Later, if she wants to come back, this place will always be here. Anthony says the same to his son, Dominic. My daughter's funny, she loves bread. If we're out and go into a store and get something, she might say 'I can tell they don't use your pizza dough, Dad.' And she's right.

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