Archie Garner Archie Garner
X Logo

Archie Garner’s new space will be painted icing-white and baby blue, with the familiar name “Hough Bakeries” plastered on an awning. But on this February morning, the only white adorning the building tucked inside the Beachwood strip mall is snow.

“I’m gonna be right here,” he says as we walk through the double doors. 

A wall of sawing, hammering and clanking greets us at the reception area where nearby contractors are splitting the large restaurant into three smaller areas for different businesses. 

Garner is eager to show off his part, the waiting area and kitchen, as he navigates around chunks of castoff drywall. There’s the metal-covered walls, an oven hood, stand mixer, loading dock out back and a walk-in freezer and cooler. 

“I still have to buy an oven,” says the 70-year-old. “Eventually we’re gonna do a doughnut system here.”

He’s excited — his plans for the space are ambitious. But for Garner, the journey here has been long. As a young man, Garner worked at Hough Bakeries, a brand so beloved by Clevelanders that a mere mention mixes up long-forgotten cravings. 

Its famous white cakes — tight, moist crumbles and luscious, silky icing, with a hint of almond — marked thousands of Clevelanders’ birthdays, weddings and family reunions. Its carefully prepared canapes were found in downtown boardrooms and neighborhood social halls. Its doughnuts were sugary Friday sunshine. 

At its height, Hough had a large bakery in Glenville and 70 stores, outlets and supermarket bakeries across Northeast Ohio. Garner started there as a janitor, eventually becoming head baker for the company’s catering division. 

After the legendary bakery closed in 1992, Garner started his Archie’s Hough Bakery, in Collinwood, where he made versions of the Hough classics — cakes and cookies, croissant-flaky all-butter bread and pecan rolls. For almost 25 difficult and joyous years, Garner struggled to keep the Hough legacy alive there. 

Then last September, Garner’s landlord called. He wanted to raise the rent, Garner says. Garner couldn’t afford it. The call set off four “panic months,” as Garner rushed around town looking for somewhere to start again. As word got around that the beloved bakery could be closing permanently, one of Garner’s customers started a GoFundMe page in October to help raise funds for a move. Garner started another one in November, which raised more than $18,900, as he searched for a new location.

The right spot was difficult to find. Garner’s old shop was never especially profitable. He relied on cakes and special orders to stay afloat, and benefited from a hyper-loyal clientele that made the bakery a destination. Most of his customers drove for many miles to pick up phoned-in orders. Some especially cultish fans trekked from as far as Youngstown and Toledo. Tour buses even sometimes pulled up outside. But the day-to-day local walk-ins that are a small-time baker’s flour and sugar, and made the old Hough Bakeries thrive, had simply left.

Garner hopes that will change at the new bakery. He looked at locations in downtown, the East Side Market, East Cleveland, Willoughby and several other areas before striking a deal with the landlord here in Beachwood. 

Located off busy Richmond Road in a pair of strip malls that also house the upscale Moxie and gourmet pizzeria Noce, the bakery is near plenty of office buildings packed with hungry workers. The highway hums within earshot. The location is brimming with potential. But it’s bittersweet. Hough Bakeries was named for an iconic Cleveland neighborhood. But to thrive, it had to leave the city altogether.

“We were invited to go to a lot of different neighborhoods, areas and we looked at them too. But this one was the best,” Garner says. “Our customer base is close to here.”

Weeks of wrangling contractors, navigating licensing bureaucracy and searching for ovens lie ahead, so Garner can’t be sure, but he hopes to have the bakery open in time for the Easter rush. 

He sees the future clearly. Brides and parents cramming into the wedding cake consultation room in the little nook by the door. Customers lapping summer ice cream in a small seating area outside. Kids pressing fingers onto the glass of bakery cases crammed with delectable classics. The Hough Bakeries sign from the old store, in that flourishing font, hanging overhead. Maybe a mailing service sending cakes across the country, and a bakery school to teach the next generation. 

In this kitchen, echoing with power tools, Garner dreams of a new Hough Bakery legacy. 

 “We walked in here to look at the place,” Garner says. “I said, ‘This is perfect.’ ”

After the kitchen tour, Garner and I hop in his SUV, zoom onto Interstate-271 and travel back in time. We head north, toward Collinwood, to see Garner’s old bakery. 

But the Hough legacy extends much farther back than that, to another Archie, whose story begins on the Caribbean island of Barbados. 

Amid sunny skies, rustling sugar cane and British imperial rule, Lionel Archibald Pile, known to family as Archie, was born on Plum Tree Plantation on Aug. 29, 1879. He was educated at a Moravian school on the island and, at 21, came to the United States, shouldering through the great throngs at Ellis Island and settling in Brooklyn. 

Pile’s coastal pit stop was brief. By May 1903, he had moved to Cleveland and purchased his future brother-in-law’s struggling 800-square-foot bakery at 8708 Hough Ave. He married Katherine Welker two years later.

Pile put up $57 to buy the almost-failing store, and assumed $1,000 worth of debts. Making matters more perilous, Pile lacked any baking experience, according to an industry magazine in the Hough Bakery archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society. His primary qualification was a previous job as a grocery clerk.

But what Pile lacked in knowledge, he made up for in dawn-till-dusk effort. In the mornings, he learned on the job from an experienced German baker whose expertise he acquired along with the shop, toiling over treats such as pecan rolls in the hot oven. In the afternoons, he sold the morning’s goods from a horse-drawn carriage labeled, in ornate script, “L.A. Pile Grocer & Baker.” 

To work the shop, Pile hired a handful of bakers and female clerks. In the company newsletter Hough Stuff, one employee later recalled Pile sitting every Saturday at the roll-top desk behind the display case to tally the payroll. He paid the bakers out of his own pocket, and the shop girls from the till. His manner was straight-ahead, and he did not like to blare his own accomplishments. But his caring treatment of his employees earned him a sobriquet he wore for the rest of his life: “the boss.”

“He worked on the oven almost constantly and was very proud of it, especially when the cheese kuchen was baked,” long-time employee Al Rigot recalled in the September 1959 Hough Stuff, “for it was the last item made on a Saturday, and then it was time to go home.”

The bakery was as much a destination for swanky clientele from the downtown and Euclid Avenue business districts as it was a neighborhood staple. Arthur Pile, Archie’s eldest son, who later led the company, recalled in a 1971 speech to the Associated Retail Bakers of America an incident from when the Piles lived in Glenville.

As a boy of 10, his father tasked him with a daily bread delivery to a widowed teacher who lived a few houses away. Arthur trudged down an alley, laden with loaves, to the teacher’s door. But she was short on money. It was two weeks before Christmas, and she refused to pay. Then, on the Saturday before the holiday, she refused again. Arthur had had enough. 

“Aren’t you going to pay me?” he said. “Or are you too poor?” 

The humiliated teacher paid up and Arthur returned home triumphant. But his father was not pleased. Arthur earned a march back to the teacher’s doorstep to apologize. Even to its youngest employees, Hough Bakery was a neighborhood business first.

The incident, one guesses, was one of many. Pile, a family member wrote, was also known to hand-deliver baked goods to people in need of food. And during the Great Depression, one long-time employee recalled in Hough Stuff, the bakery took scrip in lieu of U.S. currency.

By the 1930s, the second generation of Piles had taken over the business, and the Hough Bakery name took on new prominence as they expanded the business, opening stores in East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, and catering weddings, balls and celebrations. 

In 1941, as white residents migrated out of Hough and Glenville in earnest, the Piles purchased the Star Bakery plant at 1519 Lakeview Road near the Cleveland-East Cleveland border. Under the leadership of the four Pile sons — Arthur, Lawrence, Kenneth and Robert — it became the home base from which the bakery expanded into more of Cleveland’s suburbs.

David Pile, Archie’s grandson, who himself worked at Hough, recalls playing with discarded icing tubes in the cake decorating department as a child. In that room, the decorators worked cake magic, preserved in photos in the company collection. A man-sized cake was created for the Marine Corps’ 170th anniversary and cut with a saber. They made a spun-sugar replica of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, complete with four tiny nuns and a priest. A cake for Mayor Ralph Perk featured his face, and another for Governor James Rhodes featured the state seal.

But it still remained a family business. Archie and Katherine Pile’s 50th wedding anniversary was even held in the factory.

“In the ’50s, our family had Thanksgiving down at the company. Some years we ate in the canape department, surrounded by all the production stuff, the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling,” David Pile remembers. “Then we started eating in the hospitality room.”

The look of the factory during that era announced the company’s arrival as a local cultural force in the following decades, as it continued to expand. The lily-white front facing the street ensconced the former Hough store in classy surroundings, with rich-looking awnings over the windows. Above the building’s second-floor windows, a circular seal embodied the bakery’s ongoing mission, “Quality Since 1903.” Atop the front door a neoclassical cornice with a star was fixed proudly. And through that door, one day in 1968, walked a young man named Archie Garner.

“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.’ ”

Where Hough Bakeries began, there is now a field. Garner steers the car as it scrambles up the bumpy Mount Sinai Drive hill from University Circle to where the original Hough Bakery, then called Hough Home Bakery, once stood, beside the gentle bend at 8708 Hough Ave. Garner pulls to a near-stop there. We crane our necks to look across the street. A foundation is turning to rubble. The grass is struggling to stay alive in the cold. 

“Yup. Just a field,” says Garner. “It’s empty.”

In the ‘60s, Garner lived around the corner from where the car now idles, in a quaint house with green turf steps on East 84th Street. He remembers, as a young kid, attending a theater on this block and buying fruit from vendors. By the time he moved here in 1966, the Hough Avenue shop that started it all had long since passed into memory. 

For many Clevelanders those memories are all that remains of Hough Bakeries. They left for the suburbs. The company folded. The bricks and mortar crumbled. But the memories the place embodied, given life by a bygone taste, are still sweet. Garner hopes to build a future on those memories, by drawing in the people who seek slices of the transplanted past. Garner pushes the gas, and we coast back toward Beachwood and his new shop. 

Garner is intent to go beyond keeping the Hough legacy intact. He would like to use the bigger kitchen to increase his offerings. He wants to start a school to train new bakers at far cheaper cost than culinary schools, with a goal of fostering the next generation of black bakery owners. He wants to ship his cakes to Cleveland expats in North Carolina and Florida and California. He wants to train his sons, Archie Jr. and Demitrius, and his daughters, Sandy and Samantha, to take over the business, as Archie Pile did before him. 

He will turn 71 years old in April, and has no intention of giving up on the Hough Bakery legacy. 

“I had to keep Hough alive,” he says. “I had to keep that.”

We thrum over the gaps in the Richmond Road pavement. Boxy office complexes flash past on the left, and condos on the right, all teeming with Garner’s potential customers, hungry for the memories Garner carries in his head, and makes with his hands.

“These people want pastries, they want doughnuts,” Garner says, as he pulls back up to his shop. “Yes. I can do this.”  

X Logo