Bobby and Elizabeth Lockherd worked at the local Dolly Madison bakery on National Road a combined 80 years. Each had a sibling who worked there, and Bobby’s parents were Dolly Madison employees a combined 49 years.
Bobby and Elizabeth met at the bakery and made lifelong friends there. Even after retirement, they would attend parties at the plant to catch up with colleagues, usually bringing Bobby’s popular pineapple upside-down cake.
Even Dolly Madison employees who were not related by blood or marriage felt a family kinship with others who worked for years alongside them.
But the manufacturing facility that seemed like a “second home” to Bobby and many others for five decades sits silent today.
The Dolly Madison plant, which started locally as Sap’s Donuts, closed last month. Its parent company, Hostess Brands, maker of such iconic snacks as Twinkies, is in bankruptcy for the second time in a decade, leaving the local plant’s future uncertain.
But flip the calendar back four decades, and it was a much different atmosphere.
In late summer 1968, Bobby Lockherd and some of his friends were looking for after-school jobs. He was 16 when Sap’s hired him, primarily to wash the lines at the end of the production day. He started at 3 p.m., typically helping on the bread lines until production finished, and left at 10 p.m., after using scrapers and hoses to clean the machinery to prepare it for the next day’s production. Bobby’s father, Robert Lockherd, joined the bakery in January 1969. Bobby’s mother, Goldie Lockherd, followed four months later.
Bobby soon moved into the receiving department, unloading trucks that were bringing packaging materials and baking ingredients. He worked in receiving 28 of his 43½ years at the plant.
Elizabeth started at Sap’s in June 1969 after moving here from Kentucky. She worked on a production line with Bobby’s mother and met Bobby in late summer. They began dating in September and married in February 1970.
After their first daughter, Robin, was born, Elizabeth switched to the night shift, so one of the parents could stay home with their daughter.
Bobby would come in with Robin in the morning and hand her over to Elizabeth, who would take her home before going to bed. As Robin was waiting for Elizabeth in the break room, the couple’s co-workers would watch her and give her treats.
“Had her spoiled rotten,” Elizabeth said with a laugh.
The Lockherds’ youngest daughter, Angie Sherfick, said her parents’ former co-workers still stop when they see her.
“‘You’re Bobby’s girls aren’t you? I remember you when you were just babies,’ they will say,” Sherfick said.
Sherfick said she struggles to understand how a company with such well-known products could go bankrupt.
“As I sat on my couch this morning reading (the) article about Dolly Madison closing, sadness filled my heart,” Sherfick said recently via email. “For many people, including my parents, this place was not just a job,” she said. “It was their life.”
Elizabeth said she formed an especially close bond with the six to eight people working on the yeast line. Effective communication was essential to making sure the line ran smoothly. Elizabeth said the group became an extended family, getting together for Christmas parties and pitch-in meals. A group of former employees still meets monthly at Sirloin Stockade.
“We knew each others’ families, kids’ names and birthdays,” Elizabeth said. “It was hard (work) and yet ... you didn’t really mind working hard if you enjoyed the people.”
The family also had high praise for the company’s first owner.
“Sap Essex was a very family-oriented man,” Sherfick said. “He knew his employees by first names. How many employers today can say that?”
“I will never forget him,” Sherfick said. “He even came to my grandpa’s funeral.”
Elizabeth said Essex was more than just a boss or owner. His door was always open, and he stopped and talked to his employees when he bumped into them around town.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better boss,” she said.
And he cared about quality.
Essex told the employees, “If you wouldn’t buy it on the shelf, you (don’t) put it in the boxes to be shipped out,” Elizabeth said.
And though Elizabeth said the old-timers tried to instill that attitude in newer workers, the product quality under later owners declined, along with other parts of the business.
Sap’s merged with Beatrice Foods in 1972 and was bought by Interstate Brands in 1979. Later renamed Interstate Bakeries and Hostess, the company first filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and again this year.
On Nov. 16, Hostess stopped production at all 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers and 570 bakery outlet stores, which employed about 18,000, including more than 200 in Columbus.
Company officials said a strike of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International union forced their hand, but union officials said six management teams in eight years failed to turn around the business despite wage and benefit concessions from the union after the first bankruptcy.
In the latest strike, union members objected to a court-imposed contract that reduced wages by 8 percent, cut pensions and made health benefits more expensive. Employees on average earned about $15 before the imposed cuts. By 2017, employees would have earned about 4 percent less than today after phased-in wage and benefit changes.
Though he had retired nearly a year earlier, Bobby manned the picket line in November in solidarity with his former co-workers.
Bobby and Elizabeth said the parent company over the years failed to invest in the bakeries and put in charge executives who did not understand the business.
“I just think a lot of it was mismanagement,” Bobby said.
Since retiring, the couple have enjoyed spending time with family, going to flea markets and going camping with a group of friends, mostly in Kentucky and Indiana — though next year they hope to take a trip to Arizona.
The Lockherds said they are saddened by the plant’s closing, especially because all of the jobs that have been lost.
“I feel bad for (the employees),” Elizabeth said. “I hope they can find another job ... (to) support their family.”
And, she said, she hopes that whoever buys the property will start up the friers again so that the plant can remain a bakery.
“It would be hard to pass there and see an apartment complex,” she said.
The couple still like the company’s products, they said. Bobby is fond of Dunkies, the small powdered doughnuts, while Elizabeth said she likes Twinkies, too.
The Lockherds said that they are happy with the life their jobs at Sap’s and Dolly Madison provided.
The jobs paid for their cars and their Elizabethtown home. It allowed them to raise two daughters, including covering the costs of Robin’s cheerleader outfits and Angie’s basketball uniforms.
“We were devoted to that place,” Elizabeth said.
Dolly Madison plant history
“Sap” Essex opens a bakery on Fifth and Washington streets.
Company growth forced a move to a newly constructed plant on National Road.
Sap’s Foods merged with Beatrice Foods.
Interstate Brands Inc. purchased Beatrice Foods.
Interstate Brands changes the name of Sap’s Donuts to Dolly Madison.
Interstate Bakeries Corp. declares bankruptcy.
Interstate Bakeries moves its headquarters to Irving, Texas, and becomes Hostess Brands. Hostess emerges from bankruptcy.
Local Dolly Madison employees reject a new contract proposal calling for wage cuts and changes to health and pension benefits, despite the CEO calling it the last, best offer.
The bakeries union, including Local 132 in Columbus, begins to strike in an effort to force the company back to the negotiating table or force the company to sell its plants to a new owner that will honor the previous contract.
Hostess Brands Inc. files motion with U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking permission to close its business and sell its assets. Bakery operations suspended at all plants.