“This is it,” Garner says, as his SUV eases to a stop. His small, old bakery sits much as it was when he left. The strip of small shops are the only businesses within view on this stretch of Lakeshore Boulevard in North Collinwood, where a few cars mosey past in the late morning. Garner’s spot was between what appears to be two nursery schools. The windows where he once tried to entice passers-by with wedding cakes are now empty. But a gold-lettered window decal still glints: “Archie’s Hough Bakery.”
When Garner got his first job at Hough, he did not envision owning his own bakery. He dreamed of becoming an attorney, and applied after hearing the company paid good wages. He scrubbed toilets, mopped floors and cleaned up the flaky, gritty messes that come from baking by the literal ton.
He realized he did not want to be a janitor forever. Growing up in Wildwood, Tennessee, a town with a population just a grain-speck over 1,000 people, Garner lived with his grandparents, and loved to hang out in the kitchen with his grandmother, watching her bake blackberry pie, old-fashioned yeast dough cake and biscuits. He didn’t want to scrape stray flour off the floor. He wanted to cook with it.
But when Garner applied to move to the production department, he remembers being told he lacked experience. He thought his skin color had more to do with it than his ability to operate a stand mixer. At the time, even as the surrounding neighborhood was becoming majority-black, whites still primarily staffed Hough. In all-company photographs for the company’s 70th anniversary in 1973, there are only a handful of black faces. “They had blacks working in each department, but it was like, We have our quota, that’s it,” Garner says.
So, Garner recalls, he filed a discrimination grievance through his union. On the day of his hearing, he went to the front offices. Union representatives and the company board, including Pile family members, had assembled to hear his case.
“I says, ‘You know it’s the United States of America. Why would I be discriminated against when I just wanna work? I wanna work,’ ” Garner remembers.
The group broke up for lunch. Garner’s odds looked bad. He thought the union would probably side with the company. His friends had warned him, too — making trouble was a quick route to getting fired. But following the recess, a union representative pulled Garner aside.
“Well,” Garner recalls him saying, “you’re starting production Monday.”
Garner thinks it was the Pile family members on the company board that ruled in his favor.
“This is one of the reasons I have so much respect for that family,” he says. “When they listened to my case, they could have easily turned me down and wouldn’t have had any flack with the union.”
Garner threw himself into his new job as a baker’s helper. Instead of pulling one rack for the bakers, he pulled two. Instead of walking to pick up a piece of equipment, he broke into a sprint. “I worked extra hard because I had to protect myself,” he says.
But Hough’s greatest secrets — its recipes — were still withheld. The bakers guarded their stations. So Garner came up with a clever strategy to learn piecemeal, by basting the bakers in flattery.
It worked. Garner learned to use the cake depositor machine, to mix the right proportions of ingredients and the secrets of the legendary white cake. But the pair of bakers who worked the ovens, where Garner often assisted, proved tougher. So Garner pitted the two veterans against each other, complimenting the work of one behind the other’s back, and vice versa. Eventually, each began to teach Garner, and Garner learned more still, earning his way to the catering division.
After several years, Garner became the head baker there. With its own building on the factory grounds and a kitchen too, catering was where Garner put all the knowledge he had gleaned into making cakes, hors d’oeuvres and canapes for weddings, events and society parties. His name was listed in the company telephone directory, he had a parking space with his name on it and he was cooking for families with names like Modell and Ratner.
“We did all the baking for the catering parties, for all the rich people,” Garner says. “That’s how I learned to make everything. The good part about that is no one else could do that.”
Then, in 1990, the Pile family sold the business to Amerifoods. By 1992 it had gone bankrupt. Garner wanted to save the company, and even tried to organize a group of employees to revive it. But the effort eventually fell apart and Garner decided to start his own store, settling in Collinwood in April 1994.
The early months were tough. At first, curious people stopped in. But then, Garner recalls, traffic slowed to a trickle. He began to cut back on complex, expensive Hough treats, like the pecan rolls, made with pricey nuts and an involved, but oh-so-delish, sweet glaze. He had to let go of several staff. Then, in September, legendary local columnist Mary Strassmeyer mentioned Archie’s shop. “Found: A birthday cake that tastes more like a Hough Bakeries birthday cake than any other in town,” Strassmeyer wrote.
The word was out. Garner’s shop became a destination for those craving Hough’s special-occasion treats. Take Susan Delaney, a Howard Hanna real estate agent, who came in a few weeks after it opened. Hough Bakeries had made her birthday cakes as a child, her engagement cake, her wedding cake and her children’s birthday cakes. Garner’s bakery was the next best thing. Delaney drove up from her home near the University Heights-Shaker Heights border for petit fours, sugar cookies and cakes. She even drove one of Garner’s cakes all the way to Boston for her son’s rehearsal dinner.
“My grandchildren are now fourth-generation Hough,” she says.
Dave Klein, a retired accountant, also remembers getting Hough Bakeries cakes as a child. His mother was an excellent baker, so when she made the extra effort to get a Hough cake in the blue-and-white box, he knew the occasion was special.
“That made your birthday official,” he says.
With the closure of Hough Bakeries, Klein too found himself driving up from Beachwood to Garner’s little shop in Collinwood. He sometimes sat outside in the car, marveling at the license plates from three or four counties over, as his wife retrieved precious morsels, such as chocolate coconut bars.
“They were like dying and going to heaven,” he says.
As the years passed, people like Delaney and Klein became the foundation of Garner’s business. The shop was sometimes only a few white cakes away from folding. But Hough Bakery lovers kept it alive.
Garner’s baked goods hit all the nostalgic notes they remembered. Sometimes, Garner recalls, as we pull away from the now-empty Collinwood store, customers would ask for a fork right there in the shop.
“This one lady just took a bite and started crying,” Garner remembers. “She says, ‘I didn’t think I’d ever taste this again.’ ”