Farewell to Family Business: Lubeley’s Bakery & Rothman Furniture Closing

lubely's bakery on watson road in crestwood mo photo by toby weiss

The news of Lubeley’s Bakery closing after nearly 80 years of business spread rapidly. Without fail, the response to the news was, “Noooooooooo!” Among my immediate circle, our tragedy is the thought of living life without Lubeley’s Dobash torte.

With a September 30, 2017 closing deadline looming, I wanted to bring one last Dobash to a dinner party, and say a proper farewell. As I headed up Watson Road, mere blocks away from the bakery, I came to another long-time St. Louis family business that announced its closing right after Lubeley’s:

rothman furniture in crestwood mo closing photo by toby weiss

After 90 years, Rothman Furniture is closing up shop.  Whereas the 2nd generation of the Lubeley family wants to retire after 60+ years of hardworking service, the 3rd generation of Rothmans’ knows they can no longer compete properly in today’s furniture marketplace, and want to bow out on their own terms.

Raise your hand if you’re one of the thousands of people who have used the massive Rothman parking lot for student driving practice. Or got a ticket from the traffic police who hide on the eastern edge.

I pulled into the Lubeley’s parking lot, which (unlike most days) was so packed I had to wait for a spot to open up. This left time to ponder some other long-time St. Louis family businesses (not on this stretch of Watson Road!) that packed it in.

ponticello's pizza in spanish lake, mo closed in 2013 photo by toby weiss

On New Year’s Eve 2015, Yacovelli’s Restaurant said goodbye after 95 years. They were a long-standing tradition for North St. Louis Countians, including my family, who had so many family gatherings in the banquet rooms over the decades. But while the Yacovelli family was waiting on our families, they weren’t spending time with their families. The 4th generation wanted to see what else life offered.

And then there was Ponticello’s (above) in Spanish Lake, which closed May 2013 after 59 years of serving one of the yummiest thin crust pizzas I’ve ever had, and The Best tempura-batter onion rings ever (just typing that made my eyes well up with tears, I miss them so).

interior shot of ponticello's pizza in spanish lake mo photo by toby weiss

Ponticello’s was a stalwart of the Spanish Lake community. We watched it grow from a take-out place with a few dine-in seats to a restaurant destination for North County ex-pats looking to wallow in nostalgia and their fine food. There was deep comfort in knowing that Ponticello’s was always there.

The daughter (and eventual son-in-law) of Rose and Vito Ponticello spent all of her life working in the family business. In their deep sixties by 2013, they were worn out. Unlike other veteran restaurant families in North County, they did not flee to St. Charles County to keep on keeping on. They just wanted to see what living a normal life would be like.

With no buyer emerging at the time, Ponticello’s is simply gone (but where are those recipes?!). As of this writing, the building remains vacant, and every time I pass by, my heart feels heavy. Then I think of how light-hearted the 2nd generation probably feels. And that Vito Ponticello passed 17 months after his legacy closed. And that life goes on no matter how you feel about it.

interior of lubelys bakery in crestwood mo before it closed photo by toby weiss

Back at Lubeley’s, inside the shop was even more chaotic than the parking lot. The 20+ customers grabbing their last bits of goodness were respectfully sad, and sharing their sorrow with the Lubeley daughter, who was hella-busy behind the cash register, but calm and gracious to everyone.

The case where the Dobash Torte always sat was completely empty, save for one chocolate cake. With tomorrow’s dinner party in mind, I asked if one could still place an order for the Dobash?
“We are not taking any more orders.”
Will there be more Dobash tomorrow?
“Maybe.”

I knew I would not be able to get up at the crack of dawn to vie for the last precious few Dobash tortes. Anyone who would do such a thing deserved it far more than me. So I snapped a few photos, soaked in my last moment at Lubeley’s, and went to Plan B for the dinner party: Federhofer’s Bakery.

To be honest, Federhofer’s in Affton, MO has been my locally-owned family bakery of choice for two decades. I go there so regularly they know my face; it’s my Cheers. 8 minutes after leaving Lubeley’s for the last time, I walked into a familiar cookie hug, and bought a cake for the dinner, and two donuts to immediately drown my Dobash sorrow.

Lately, Federhofer’s has done quite a bit of interior updating, indicating they are in it for the long haul. But Lubeley’s had done a major remodel a few years ago, and now they’re closing, so the usual signs of progress are not a given for independent, family-owned businesses.

Which is why I asked the young man ringing me out if Federhofer’s has felt the impact of Lubeley’s closing. He said their business had doubled in the last few days, with tons of people walking in to look around to see if this could be their new bakery. And since Lubeley’s and Federhofer’s have some similar goods, there were many who felt a sense of relief that their sweet-tooth need not suffer.

I remarked to him about the recent remodeling and upgrades; does this mean Federhofer’s has no plans to retire? He confirmed that the new generation has enthusiastic long-term plans for the company; they’re in it for the long-haul.
Whew!

Family Biz Speculation
Why do some families keep on with their inherited business while others pack it in?

The nature of the business rather than the generational cohort may be the deciding factor. Food service is non-stop grueling work. When corporate food chains can fill some of the needs without the personal toll, why continue to grind yourself into the dirt?

Or think about this: the original family that started the business had completely different motivations than the subsequent generations who inherited it. What was once your high school job becomes a career that was assigned to you. You’re working for your parents’ dream, but what about yours?

For those of us who’ve never been in this position, this is all pure speculation, an attempt to walk in their shoes for a moment. And I’m sure the legacy of what they leave behind weighs heavy, especially when loyal, long-time customers come out of the woodwork to say goodbye and share their feelings about the farewell. They are surely not immune to our sorrow, but they have lives to live that can’t be dictated by our nostalgia. Like the rest of us in today’s America, they deserve to get out while the getting’s good, yes?

Lubeley’s Bakery Dobash Torte photo by Steve Carosello.

There are sometimes shimmers of hope to keep a bit of what we’re losing. The friend who first introduced my to the heavenly Lubeley Dobash Torte (his photo is above) placed a call to the bakery. They said that since the news of their closing has made the local media they’ve had several serious inquiries to buy the business. And if that doesn’t come to pass, there’s genuine concern to make the effort to preserve their family recipes.

St. Louisans have experienced a few iconic recipes remaining in place after the store has closed. Some of Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria cakes are still available at Straub’s. Lake Forest Bakery confections can still be found elsewhere. And even one of the old Mavrakos chocolate candy recipes still exists. If you know of others, please share in the comments.

We all pass things onto subsequent generations, but it may be easier to preserve a piece of jewelry or painting (an object) rather than a recipe or a business (a concept). And as the originator disappears further into the abyss of time, we can’t expect the later chain of inheritors to feel as strongly about it. Confronting the limits of mortality always stings.

The present is alway, irrefutably, all we ever have. The future is unknown, the past is only remembered. I am grateful for every morsel of Dobash torte we’ve enjoyed, and wish all the families putting their businesses to bed all the very best in the future.

Ackerman Buick: 50 Years and Gone

Ackerman Buick
near the intersection of New Halls Ferry & Dunn Road
Dellwood, MO

I previously covered Ackerman Buick, and the short post brought on some great comments, including:
It’s kinda depressing now, but I can remember when that was the most energetic, happening intersection in North County. Maybe, someday, it will come back…I hope so…

The above photo was taken the day after Thanksgiving 2009. I made the trek back out because after having been dark for a spell, the lights were back on with cars for sale in the lot, and and an Ackerman sign was back up when it had been gone for several years.

And across the window they declared in huge, bright letters: Here 50 Years!  Now, these weren’t 50 continuous years; owner Jerry Ackerman sold the franchise to Behlman in 2006, and in 2007 it became a Hyundai franchise, which is when they took down the gigantic lighted letters that spelled “Buick.” That right there was the end of an era, but at least the complex was still open. Then it went dark and empty.

So seeing the lights back on and a temporary Ackerman sign going up on the building was a thrill. The original owners were returning, and crowing about it: Here 50 Years! That kind of pride of place is rare in the retail world.

And suddenly, the old neon sign (above) was relevant once again! They still had the same phone number, they had used cars, everything was returning to the way it had once been. How does something like this happen in today’s world? I was not ashamed to have tears of happiness in my eyes as I stared up at the flickering neon roaring through the glass tubes once again.

Jerry Ackerman bought out Kuhs Buick, which was on North Grand, and in the early 1960s he uprooted that neon sign and brought it out to burgeoning North County. The little building above was the first new structure to go up on the property in 1964.  The winged, main building went up in 1965.

They eventually had over 9 acres, sloping up toward West Florissant, along the Hwy 270 service road. As you can see from the aerial map above, it was not only an auto complex, but an entire village! I never bought a car from there, never even stepped on the lot until 2003 to take photos, but this town within a town aspect always fascinated me. You could watch the complex unfold as you tooled down the highway; the sign next to the round building at the top of the hill was always flashing come-ons; it was a spiritual epicenter for a happening part of a Baby Boom suburban town, straddling the lines between Dellwood, Ferguson and Florissant.

This ad from a 1969 issue of Look magazine was passed to me by a 25-year Ackerman Buick employee, Tim Von Cloedt. I made his cyber acquaintance when he commented on the May 2009 B.E.L.T. post about the place.  He grew up in the neighborhood directly behind the complex,  riding his bike through the lot as a boy, and eventually coming to work there. He has supplied much of the historical information herein, and major thanks to him for helping to create this mini-memorial.

While talking about the sad, run-down state of the now-vacant Ackerman at a family dinner, my cousin Kathy revealed that she had almost been arrested on her high school graduation night in 1973 for drunkenly trying to climb the elephant on their lot.  Ackerman bought the fake elephant – bolted to a small trailer so it could be tooled around the lot – when Buick was selling Opels, and it was huge and iconic in the area. My cousin only made it halfway up when a cop put a stop to it. That elephant now resides at a golf range owned by a former used car salesman at 370 and Missouri Bottoms.

The round showcase building at the top of the hill housed many different Ackerman-owned business over the years, including GMC motor homes, Chris-Craft boats, Mitsubishi and Hyundai.

Curving off the round building is this folded, metal promenade that led to the parts department. This is a two-story structure tucked into the hill, and is the eastern boundary of the property, serving as a fortress wall. I used to wonder how many times a day employees had to make the trek from up here down to the main building and how many calories did that burn?

Jerry Ackerman gave it another try at this location, which was when the lights came back on, and the Here 50 Years! declaration was made. But a deal went bad and it went dark again. Come Labor Day 2010 (above) weeds were growing up through the once-immaculate blacktop, fascia was falling off the water-logged building, and vandals had been riding roughshod. It was just sad to pass by a place that was once so vibrant with activity now so still and forlorn. And what do you do with such a huge swath of property that was always devoted to motor vehicles?

On February 26, 2011 they held a public auction for the contents of the buildings. It was a bitterly cold, damp and grey day, but it was nice to see vehicles all over the lot one last time, and tons of people (mostly men) milling about the place, buying up a wide array of items.

After all these years, I finally made it inside the winged building! But the water damage was so bad that it was hard to breathe from all the mold, so even though it was warmer in there than outside, I had to vacate.

Most of the auction lots were inside the former service department. Lots of auto repair equipment, to be sure, but also decades worth of furniture and…

…the lighted Buick letters! These sold for $300, and this is why you should never throw anything away. I do hope someone bought the original Ackerman neon sign. And there was one item for sale that nearly broke my heart:

This large painting is signed “Charles Morgenhaler, 1949,” and shows the Kuhs Auto building on North Grand, the dealership Jerry Ackerman bought out. At the bottom middle, in white paint is “1.30.64.” It looks as if this is when the painting was altered to Ackerman Buick on the building’s neon marquee and windows. Meaning, Ackerman inherited the painting and altered it, then took it with him out to North County. And after all of these generations of history unfolding, it now hung in the last stall of the service bay, soaking up the damp, waiting for its next home.

I hope someone bought it. Or that Jerry or his son took it home as a keepsake.

The main building is scheduled to come down any day now, with the rest of the buildings right behind it. By the end of March 2011, it will be vacant land, which is for sale. Maybe it’s better to have the vacant land than to have the once mighty Ackerman Buick sit there decaying, reminding everyone of glory days that passed by in 50 years, then gone.

UPDATE
Readers have asked exactly where the original Kuhs Buick was on North Grand. Thank you Larry Giles for filling us in. Click this link to see it on Google maps.

Larry also shared this photo of his mother Beverly Giles (passenger side) inside the Kuhs showroom, where she was the office manager in the late 1950s.

I’ve also been told that the mayor of Ferguson had yet to receive a demolition permit for the Ackerman site, so maybe those buildings aren’t coming down so quickly? Let’s cross our fingers and hope it’s true!

DEMOLITION UPDATE
The building was taken down in one day on August 15, 2011. Video footage here.

If it Plays in Peoria: New Jack in the Box Logo

Jack in the Box has a new logo, which is both retro and modern at the same time. I noticed this new sign about a month ago in Alton.

The new look is on the corporate website, and has made it onto all their food wrappers and containers, but I’ve yet to see Metro St. Louis make the final commitment: change the building signage.

So far, I’ve seen only one store trot out the new sign, the store that’s been there “forever” at the intersection of Washington & College Avenues in downtown Upper Alton. But it’s not a full-on commitment, as there’s still the old signs on the building.

Is this test marketing, an “if it plays in Peoria it’ll play anywhere” kind of thing? Which doesn’t completely make sense because the national corporation has obviously committed to this new look, so if the folks in Pie Town were to stage an aesthetic revolt, does this mean they’d can the new logo? Riiiight.

Has anyone seen the new logo on building signage anywhere in the Metro St. Louis area? Or beyond?

Retro Retail Holiday

West Florissant & Hwy 270
North St. Louis County, MO

St. Louis hasn’t seen the likes of a Venture sign since 1998. But for the holiday shopping season, much like Gypsy Rose Lee peeling and dropping a glove, Venture teases us with a blast from the past.

One question though: after 12 years, Kmart still won’t spring for real signage?  Nice job, class all the way.