Federal Bake Shop
The Federal Bake Shop was part of a national chain, which opened a Memphis branch downtown at 119 Madison way back in 1923. It soon became a popular place for hundreds of downtown workers to pick up doughnuts and coffee on their way to the office, or for shoppers to grab a quick snack during lunch. As you can see in these nice old photos taken in 1947, the exterior of the bakery was quite spiffy-looking, with its gleaming black, white, and stainless-steel panels. The interior was stark-white to the point of being sterile, but who cared about that when those glass cases were just packed with doughnuts and cakes and cookies and plenty of other things to satisfy your sweet tooth?
The place didn’t look quite so spic-and-span after September 26, 1955. Early that morning, an employee fired up the bakery’s big gas ovens. A few hours later, he noticed that they had apparently gone out, so he looked inside, struck a match, and … BOOM!
The blast from the buildup of gas knocked him and another baker across the building, sending them both to the hospital with first- and second-degree burns. According to newspaper accounts, “the explosion was heard throughout downtown Memphis. The glass front door and windows of the shop were blown out as well as all the windows in the rear. Glass was scattered for 100 feet up and down Madison Avenue.”
Both men were lucky they weren’t killed, and they eventually recovered from their burns. After a few weeks, the bakery was able to return to business as normal.
But the changing face of downtown eventually closed the Federal Bake Shop. When so many retail businesses shuttered in the 1970s, the bakery manager told reporters that he was now losing more than $1,000 a week. “In the clothing business, that’s not much,” said Bill Fraser, “but for a bakery, it’s big. Business started falling off about a year ago. We used to have a tremendous birthday cake and wedding cake business. But office girls just buy one of something, and the only shoppers left are people who work downtown.”
Memphis wasn’t alone, though. In other cities, Federal Bake Shops closed their downtown locations and opened branches in suburban shopping centers and malls. A company official said Federal had considered that possibility here, but “couldn’t find anything suitable and so decided to close down completely.” Federal sold its last doughnuts in Memphis on March 27, 1976.
Newspapers reported, “The closing will be traumatic for the longtime customers, many of whom first entered the shop with their parents in the days when it was second nature to shop downtown and watch cake decorators at work.”
One woman pleaded with reporters, “What am I going to do for my doughnuts?” Though the bakery is long gone, the stunning four-story building on Madison, with its wonderful terra-cotta façade, is now standing empty and waiting for a tenant.
PHOTOS COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES