Stella D'Oro closes, taking a piece of history with it

This week, Brynwood Partners, the owners of Stella D'oro pastries, announced that it is closing the company's only factory. While some of the brand's products will continue to be produced in other facilities, the loss of Stella D'oro's Bronx bakery represents more than just the end of a factory; in many ways, it is the last act in a uniquely American story.

For many people, Stella D'oro cookies, breadsticks, and pastries are a breakfast standard, as basic a part of the meal as coffee, orange juice, and cereal. The bakery's iconic treats trace their heritage to Joseph Kresevich, who emigrated to the United States from Trieste, Italy in 1922. Ten years later, he and his wife Angela established Stella D'oro -- Italian for "gold star" -- in a small north Bronx factory.

Although Stella D'oro's cookies were based on the Italian pastries that Kresevich remembered from his homeland, they quickly became cross-cultural snacks. In those days, the factory's neighborhood was largely filled with Jewish families, and the fact that the pastries were often made without eggs or butter meant that they were suitable for kosher customers. A particular favorite was the company's Swiss Fudge cookies, which many Jewish consumers dubbed "shtreimels," after the round fur hats that are traditionally worn on the sabbath.

In 1992, Stella D'oro was purchased by Nabisco, which subsequently became part of Kraft foods. In 2003, Kraft began experimenting with cheaper ingredients, ultimately shedding Stella D'oro's kosher designation. This led to an immediate uproar among the Jewish consumers who formed the bulk of the company's customer base. Kraft quickly changed back to the original recipe and re-instituted its kosher certification.

In 2006, Kraft sold Stella D'oro to a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners. Soon thereafter, the company began austerity measures, attempting to cut benefits and pay for Stella D'oro's workers. In August 2008, 134 of them went on strike, and were immediately replaced with backup workers that Brynwood had already gathered. Last week, a federal judge ruled that Brynwood must rehire its striking employees. Although the firm complied with the court order, it almost immediately announced that the factory will be closing.

The Bronx location will stay open until October, as Brynwood prepares to move all production to other facilities. While consumers take these three last months to enjoy the final vestiges of a real American brand, it's worth thinking about whether the price -- and the value -- of an iconic brand can really be reduced to dollars and cents.
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