Vista Bakery, Inc.
Vista Bakery, Inc.
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Lance Inc.
Sales: $85 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 311821 Cookie and Cracker Manufacturing
Vista Bakery, Inc. is a Burlington, Iowa-based manufacturer of cookies and crackers. A subsidiary of snack food manufacturer Lance, Inc., the company markets its own Vista brand of baked goods and also produces private label cookies and crackers for a number of retailers and wholesalers.
The Iowa Biscuit Years: 1907–33
Vista Bakery’s roots stretch back to June 13, 1907, with the establishment of the Iowa Biscuit Co. J.M. Storrar served as the company’s first president, and A.G. Oberle as vice-president.
In December 1907, six months after it was incorporated, the Iowa Biscuit Co. began producing baked goods at a rented facility on Third Street in Burlington. After approximately seven years of operation, volume and income tripled at the young enterprise. The company employed 50 to 100 workers, roughly 25 percent of whom were skilled laborers. Under the trademark of a wild rose and the slogan “Sweet and Clean,” the company marketed its products to wholesalers and jobbers in select areas of the Midwest, including Iowa, western Illinois, and northeastern Missouri. Six traveling salesmen were charged with this important task.
By 1914, prosperity enabled Iowa Biscuit to relocate to a new, five-story facility adjacent to the one it had been renting. With 40,000 square feet of space, the new fireproof building was constructed specifically for the production of baked goods and contained a lunchroom for the company’s employees and bathing facilities for bakers.
According to an early news account, a social welfare worker from Boston who inspected it dubbed the factory “absolutely perfect,” which was a credit to company management. It was clean, well lighted and ventilated, and was designed with employee safety in mind. As the April 23, 1915 issue of the Burlington Gazette revealed: “In the matter of safety every device and appliance has been provided. The building is equipped with a complete sprinkler system; with fire-escapes at the southwest and northeast corners and stairways at the northwest and southeast corners. The machinery throughout is fully protected from contact. The equipment in the matter of machinery and appliances is of the most modern and up-to-date character and the management is in the hands of one of America’s leading experts in the business.”
The basement level of Iowa Biscuit’s new plant was devoted to storing the raw materials used during production, including barrels of molasses and sacks of flour and sugar. An enormous Corliss engine, used to generate the plant’s light and power, also was housed in the basement. Materials were taken to upper levels of the building via an elevator. On the fifth floor, a machine shook flour from emptied sacks so that they were clean upon their return to the mill. On the fourth floor, machinery stamped and cut cookies before they were manually placed onto racks in one of two large ovens. It also was on the fourth floor that marshmallow was applied to certain types of cookies. On the third floor, a process involving a mechanized wheel and vacuum system was used to clean tin boxes, and workers packaged cookies and crackers for sale. In addition to being used for box storage, the second floor also contained a department responsible for making ice cream sandwiches. Finally, the first floor of Iowa Biscuit’s plant contained crackers, cookies, and cakes that were packaged and ready for sale.
Among Iowa Biscuit’s earliest products were Perfect Biscuits; W.R. Graham Crackers; Iowa Flakes; W.R. Soda Crackers; Iowa Ginger Snaps; Neto Biscuits; Lemon Biscuit Squares; Vanilla Wafers; Iowa Oyster Crackers; Animal Cookies; Oyster Crisps; Dutch Tea Rusks; Peanut Wafers; Select Soda Crackers; Baby Soda Crackers; Kenwood Sugar Wafers; Lemon Snaps; and W.R. Oatmeal Crackers.
The Midwest Biscuit Years: 1934–79
An important development took place in late 1934, when Frank J. Delaney purchased Iowa Biscuit Co. and renamed the enterprise Midwest Biscuit Co. Delaney’s involvement would have an enormous impact on the organization and assure its future success.
Born in 1887 in Chicago, the son of Thomas and Wilmer Delaney, Frank Delaney was a seasoned biscuit and cracker industry veteran, with 35 years of experience. His interest in the industry began in 1900, not long after the National Biscuit Co. (later Nabisco) was formed. Delaney’s cousin, Orrin S. Goan, managed National Biscuit’s Tenth Avenue bakery in New York and had previously worked in Chicago at National Biscuit’s Kennedy Biscuit Works. Inspired, Delaney found employment at Kennedy Biscuit for $5 per week, working for a man named C.W. Sample.
Delaney eventually was transferred to National Biscuit’s general sales department on La Salle Street when a strike closed the Kennedy plant. This proved to be an excellent opportunity, and Delaney saw his scope of responsibility increase. Before long, he was handling sales at the city and national level for National Biscuit. Upon the recommendation of A.H. Vories, then head of sales, Delaney relocated to Freeport, Illinois, and worked as a national salesman for three years. Subsequent promotions brought him to other Illinois cities, including Peoria and Galesburg.
Prior to his acquisition of Iowa Biscuit, Delaney served as an executive at a number of different companies including the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Co. of Omaha, Nebraska (where his cousin Orrin Goan was general manager); the Shelby Biscuit Co. of Memphis, Tennessee; Penick & Ford, Ltd., Inc., of New Orleans; and the cracker department of Continental Baking Corp.’s Taggart Bakery in Indianapolis. His performance at the Shelby Biscuit Co. was especially remarkable. According to a 1932 issue of Cracker Baker, thanks to Delaney and his colleague F.S. Vories, “a very unprofitable small business with nine salesmen was developed into an exceedingly profitable one employing 56 salesmen and operating four agencies.” According to the publication, Delaney’s success at Shelby was noticed by executives at Penick & Ford, “who engaged him to organize and develop a department to service the baking trade, and especially the biscuit and cracker industry, with molasses. This work not only gave him the opportunity of renewing old acquaintances made through his 25 years spent in the industry, but also a broad knowledge of the industry.”
With Delaney serving as president, Henry S. Walker as vice-president, and Delaney’s wife Eileen as secretary, Midwest Biscuit made preparations for the future. While the company would retain its hometown image, plans were made to modernize the plant in a number of ways including the addition of new equipment. In addition, Delaney announced that a completely new line of quality biscuits, crackers, and cakes would be introduced. Until his death from a heart attack in March 1947, Delaney was successful at growing Midwest Biscuit and increasing awareness about the company and its reputation for quality throughout the Midwest.
One important aspect of Delaney’s legacy was the construction of a new $150,000 plant on Mount Pleasant Street in West Burlington. Plans for the new facility, located on 17 acres, were announced in the fall of 1946 and it was completed in 1947 after Delaney passed away. The new plant—and Midwest Biscuit—played an important role in the city of Burlington’s strategy for growth and development following the end of World War II. During the war, the city had prospered because of an ordnance plant that employed 13,000 workers. However, when the plant switched to standby status, employing only 300 to 400 people, the city implemented a strategy to attract new companies to the area and to help existing ones expand.
Following the war, Midwest Biscuit continued to prosper. The company enjoyed several decades of steady growth. During this time, the plant that was built in 1947 was expanded in several stages. Although the Midwest remained Midwest Bakery’s primary market, the firm gradually extended its reach, serving distributors and supermarket chains in 34 states and Canada. By the late 1970s the company employed 170 workers and recorded annual sales of about $10 million. It sold products under the Vista Pak trade name, and also produced private label products for others.
Lance Takes Control: 1979–95
Midwest Biscuit’s steady growth and success made it an attractive candidate for acquisition. Thus, some were not surprised when Charlotte, North Carolina-based snack food manufacturer Lance, Inc. announced that it intended to acquire Burlington’s oldest commercial baking concern in July 1979 for cash. At the time, Frank Delaney’s sons, Frank J. Delaney, Jr., and R.H. (Dick) Delaney, led the company as chairman and president, respectively. Frank had joined the company in 1938 and Dick in 1940. The two men agreed to remain with the company long enough to ensure a smooth transition in ownership.
Lance’s acquisition of Midwest Bakery was ultimately completed on November 5. The new parent company initially left things unchanged, although it noted that expansion would be needed at some point in the future because of Midwest Biscuit’s continued progress. During the mid-1980s, Paul Stroup, who eventually became chairman of Lance, became Midwest Biscuit’s president. He served in that capacity until 1989, when he was transferred to Lance’s headquarters.
Our quality extends beyond the cookies and crackers themselves to Vista Bakery’s commitment to ‘Leadership, Quality, and Service You Can Clearly See.’
By the early 1990s, things continued to go well for Midwest Biscuit and Lance. The firms weathered the economic recession of the early 1990s, and Midwest Biscuit saw sales and net income increase in 1991. The company developed a strategy to increase market penetration for its Vista and private label products in the southeast. Subsequently, a plant was established in Columbia, South Carolina, and production started there in fall 1992. At this time, Midwest Biscuit’s private label clients included a number of well-known grocery chains including Aldi, Cracker Shop, Eagle, Hy Vee, and Lady Lee.
Focused on the Future: 1995 and Beyond
During the mid-1990s, several important changes took place at Midwest Biscuit. Most of these represented a natural evolution, as the company strived to stay progressive after nearly 100 years of continuous operation.
Perhaps the most significant change occurred in July 1995 when, after 60 years, Midwest Biscuit changed its name to Vista Bakery. As Lance’s vice-president, Gerry Smith, explained in the July 30, 1995 issue of the Hawk Eye, “By changing our name we are matching our corporate name with our brand name. A customer in California who’s seen the name Vista on our packaging will connect with the name better.” Smith said that Midwest Biscuit’s workers approved the name change.
In September 1995, Vista’s president, Gary Martin, retired after a 33-year career with the company. Lance appointed Dean Fields, a 32-year veteran of the snack food industry, as Vista Bakery’s new general manager. Fields eventually was named president. By this time, approximately 500 workers were employed at the Burlington plant, which operated six ovens. Vista produced private label products for hundreds of companies throughout the United States and Canada.
In order to control costs, Lance closed the Vista Bakery plant in South Carolina in 1996 and moved two of its three ovens to Burlington, along with makeup and packaging systems, and ingredient handling. In Burlington, operations were expanded to include six cookie lines and two cracker lines. One of the cookie lines was set up so that it could make crackers if necessary. The move caused total product volume to almost double, increasing from 84 million pounds in 1995 to 165 million pounds by 2000. Vista added several new crackers to its product line in early 1996. Among these were fat-free saltines, low-fat regular and cinnamon graham crackers, and four types of snack crackers: smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, garden vegetable, and sesame wheat.
During the mid-1990s, Vista began efforts to modernize its 313,000-square-foot plant to accommodate growth and meet the increasingly demanding needs of private label customers, who expected national brand name quality. The company devoted additional resources to quality assurance, as well as research and development. These efforts were supported by improvements in technology. In the October 2001 issue of Baking & Snack, Laurie Gorton summarized a few of the things Vista had done to stay at the forefront of the industry, explaining: “Electronics make lines flexible. On-line monitoring verifies quality standards. Robots speed distribution staging. Computers forecast needs, and plant-wide data networking is in the offing.”
Unlike the early days of Iowa Biscuit Co., when operations took place in a five-story building, by the early 2000s Vista’s plant was set up so that cookie and cracker production more or less took place on one floor. Although mixing and formulation occurred in a three-story tower, the company’s eight oven lines were set up in straight, parallel lines. This made it possible for ingredients to be processed, baked, packaged, placed on pallets, and moved to the warehouse in a streamlined manner. Due to space limitations, Vista relied on “just-in-time” delivery with many of the companies that supplied ingredients for its products, often receiving several shipments of packaging materials and raw ingredients each day.
By the early 2000s, Vista had extended its reach even further. In addition to the United States and Canada the company marketed its products to Mexico and a number of select international markets. Approximately 80 percent of its production was attributable to private label customers. Vista’s plant operated around the clock, five to six days per week, depending on demand. With its efforts devoted largely to the private label sector, the company had learned to be very responsive to its customer base, putting it in a strong position for future success. As Tyler Cook, vice-president of sales, said in the October 2001 issue of Baking & Snack: “We make chocolate crème sandwich cookies for 20 or 30 customers, but we are able to do different things for each client that individualize their products. To be successful in private label, you have to be flexible. Every client is different. What’s important at Vista is that we have a large facility with plenty of capacity and that our people are nimble and flexible in making decisions.”
Bake-Line Group LLC; Ralcorp Holdings Inc.; Parmalot Bakery Division.
- The Iowa Biscuit Co., Vista Bakery’s predecessor, is founded.
- Production takes place in a new, fireproof facility spanning five stories and 40,000 square feet.
- Frank J. Delaney purchases Iowa Biscuit Co. and renames the enterprise Midwest Biscuit Co.
- A new, $150,000 plant is erected on a 17-acre site in West Burlington.
- Several decades of steady growth and development begin.
- Charlotte, North Carolina-based snack food manufacturer Lance, Inc. acquires Midwest Biscuit Co. in a cash deal.
- Midwest Biscuit establishes a plant in Columbia, South Carolina.
- Midwest Biscuit changes its name to Vista Bakery.
- In order to control costs, Lance closes the Vista Bakery plant in South Carolina and moves the majority of operations to Burlington.
- Product volume reaches 165 million pounds, almost doubling from 84 million pounds in 1995.
- Vista Bakery’s reach includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, and a number of select international markets.
Allen, Don, “Burlington Solves Postwar Problems,” Des Moines Sunday Register, September 1947.
“Company History,” Burlington, Iowa: Vista Bakery, Inc., 2003.
Delaney, Steve, “Vista Bakery Launches New Era in Burlington,” Burlington Hawk Eye, January 7, 1996.
“F.J. Delaney Manager Taggart Biscuit Co.,” Cracker Baker, 1932.
Gorton, Laurie. “Exceeding Expectations,” Baking & Snack, October 2001.
“Lance Plans Purchase of Assets of Midwest Biscuit for Cash,” Milling & Baking News, July 24, 1979.
Martin, Mitch, “New Name for Bakery,” Burlington Hawk Eye, July 30, 1995.
“Midwest Biscuit Co. to Be Sold,” Burlington Hawk Eye, July 17, 1979.
“Midwest Biscuit Sale Complete,” Burlington Hawk Eye, November 6, 1979.
“Vista Supreme Lowfat Crackers,” Snack Food, February 1996.
—Paul R. Greenland