Gottlieb’s Bakery History
The history and spirit of Gottlieb’s Bakery are clearly tied to the growth and history of the city of Savannah. Each shares a rich and traditional past, each is growing and changing to meet the needs of the future.
Savannah, the first settlement in Georgia, was founded by General James Oglethorpe on February 12, 1733. The imaginative town plan, with its streets and squares laid out by General Oglethorpe and it’s beautiful architecture, contributes to an ambiance unique in American cities. From its beginnings as an experimental agricultural station, Savannah rapidly grew into a thriving seaport. By the time Gottlieb’s Bakery arrived on the scene, Savannah had recovered from the war and was a cultural and social center of the South.
Gottlieb’s Bakery had its humble beginnings in 1884, in a small basement on the corner of York and Jefferson Streets. Isadore Gottlieb, who was born in Russia in 1868, immigrated to Savannah to be with his aunt and uncle. Jennie, Isadore’s wife, was also born in Russia in 1872, but they met and were married in Savannah.
Isadore and Jennie had six sons – Joseph (Joe or Pappy), Leon, Elliot, Harold (Hank), Irving and Milton (Buster) – and two daughters, Mamie and Sadie. Jennie, Elliot, Irving and Sadie worked in the bakery. Leon and Buster had a service station. Pappy went into the the delicatessen business, and Mamie worked at A.J. and C. Garfunkel Insurance.
When the children were young, the bakery was at the corner of Bryan and Montgomery Streets. Isadore worked in the bakery at the oven, supervised the making of the bread and delivered the finished product. He had started out peddling his baked goods on foot but soon graduated to a horse and wagon. The children loved to ride with their father and fought over turns.
When Isadore delivered, he would drive to a corner, get out of the wagon, stand on the corner and rind a large handbell that he kept beside him on the seat. People from the block would come out to buy. He also informed people of the news, since many of them were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and could not read English.
One day, Isadore asked his son Joe if he would like to deliver the bread. Joe said, “Sure, just give me a list of stops and customers.”
Isadore said, “You don’t need a list. Just say “Get up, Tom [the horse],’ and he will go to the first stop.”
When the wagon arrived at a stop, Joe would get out, ring the bell and serve the customers. He would then get back on the wagon and say “Get up, Tom,” and Tom would go on to the next stop.
This sounded like a great system, but Joe asked his father how would he know when he was at the end of his route. “When you say ‘Get up, Tom” and he comes back to the bakery, then you know you are finished.”
Joe then asked for a list of which customers paid cash and which ones charged. Isadore explained, “I don’t keep records. If they don’t pay today, they will pay tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the next day. People always pay eventually, so I don’t worry about it.” In those days, bread was five cents a loaf, or twenty-two loaves for a dollar with special tickets. Rolls were fifteen cents a dozen, and a dozen large sweet rolls cost ten cents. When cucumbers were in season, they were pickled by the barrel and sold for a penny. The neighborhood kids all loved the sugar cookies, which were the size of saucers and cost a penny each.
The next move was to Oglethorpe and Montgomery Streets. This bakery was the talk of the town. It had a ceramic tile floor and “Gottlieb’s” written on the tile over the entrance. Children from all over town begged their parents to shop at Gottlieb’s. since “Aunt Jennie,” whom they loved, always had a cookie for them. There was a large dining room behind the bakery, where Jennie always welcomed anyone who happened along at mealtime and where there was plenty for all.
Tom was a fine horse and was with the bakery for a long time, but Isadore wanted to keep up with the times, so he nought a truck from J.C. Lewis Ford, which was downtown at the time. As Isadore was driving down Oglethorpe Street, he saw that he would have to stop. He pulled up on the steering wheel and shouted, “Whoa, Tom!” Of course, this did not bring the truck to a halt, and it ran into a tree.
In 1918, the bakery moved to 519 Broughton Street because everyone was talking about Savannah becoming the state port. Isadore bought a building and enlarged it to include three stores and an apartment house. The state port never did materialize, and the bakery started having some financial problems. A bakery on Thirty-second and Bull Streets had gone out of business, so in 1928, Gottlieb’s rented the building. The original store was in the area that is bounded today by the front counter, which faces Thirty-second Street, and the checkout counter. Shortly after renting the building, the family moved upstairs over the bakery and decided to buy. The sale was financed through the owner – at 4 1/2 percent interest!
According to all reports, Isadore was a sport. He always wore a stiff turned-down collar with a tie. Every Sunday afternoon, he would have his cronies over for pinochle. For refreshments, he would take a whole pickled herring, fillet it, roll it in pumpernickel dough and bake it. The pinochle game was in the back, so he would have to get up occasionally to wait on customers if no one else was in the front. Let’s hope he took his cards with him!
Jennie was a very pious woman who walked from the bakery to the old B’nai Brith Jacob Synagogue on Montgomery Street on the Sabbath. She was prim and proper, but always smiling and happy, and a good wife and mother. She frequently visited the sick, always taking with her a bag of goodies from the bakery. Her delight was to feed the pigeons from her balcony every morning; they would be lined up waiting for her at six o’clock. She would toss crumbs to the birds, and the stray crumbs would land on passersby.
When Isadore died in 1932, Irving had been in charge of the bakery for four years. Gottlieb’s specialty back then was Hank’s (after brother Harold) fruit bars and oatmeal cookies. In the afternoons and evenings, they would wrap the cookies in cellophane and deliver them to select grocery stores. They made bagels, cinnamon rolls, sugar cookies and Washington pie, which was made from bread and rolls, raisins, milk and eggs. It sold in a big square about four times the size of a present-day Gottlieb’s bread pudding slice – for five cents! The line of baked goods was expanded when the bakery moved to Bull Street.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Gottlieb’s did a big wholesale business to groceries in town. Irving delivered to the grocery stores, and Elliot, Isser’s father, delivered to restaurants. Isser often rode with his father in the delivery truck. Elliot would take Isser by the stone memorial to the Great Yamacraw Indian chief, Tomochichi, in Wright Square. He told Isser that to awaken the spirit of the great chief, he must walk three times around the grave, then knock three times on the marker and say,”Tomochichi, Tomochichi, what are you doing?” And Tomochichi would say, “Nothing,” which is exactly what he did say – nothing! Isser is still playing this trick on his sons Richard, Laurence and Michael.
Even though all of the Gottlieb brothers were not actively involved in the bakery, they would all come by early in the morning to help bag rolls before going off to their regular jobs. Often, their friends would come by to help out. Until the closing of the bakery, there were Gottlieb’s regulars who came by every morning to chat.
While Irving was in the army, the bakery was operated by Sadie and Elliot. All the children in the community knew Sadie as Sister Sadie, and they all loved her. She was a remarkable woman and a talented baker. She baked specialties like glace cake, kichel, fudge and strudel. Isser says her strudel dough always had lots of holes in it, but it didn’t matter because it was always wonderful when baked. Sadie also baked sweet rolls especially for her mother. She would come down to the bakery at six o’clock in the morning, dressed in a crisp print cotton dress and apron, having cleaned out the refrigerator upstairs of butter, sour cream and sour milk. She would pick out the bowl she wanted to use, and Isser or someone else would have to wash it twice before it was clean enough for Sadie. She would melt the butter; mix it with the sour cream and milk; add sugar, yeast and flour; and the dough upstairs to rise while she ate breakfast. The she would make it into rolls, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar and take it back downstairs to bake. Occasionally, she would take a piece of the dough, flatten out strips the length of a baking sheet, let them rise and then bake them. Next she would slice the strips into inch-thick slices and dry them out in the oven until they were golden and hard. She would roll the slices in cinnamon sugar, and Jennie would dunk them in her coffee.
Mondays, when the bakery was closed, Jennie would take challah and onion rolls and kosher her own meat. Various members of the family would take turns eating supper with Jennie and the aunts during the week. Sometimes they would take a whole Pullman loaf and run it through a bread slicer that would take a finger off if you looked at it wrong (this was before the days of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). When it had been sliced as thin as possible, they would toast it and make sandwiches from fresh tomatoes, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. When the bakers came in at night to mix the dough, the vibrations from the mixers could be felt upstairs, and Isser remembers his bed shaking back and forth when he spent the night with his grandmother.
For Sunday dinner – in the middle of the day, of course – Jennie would have two seatings because someone had to watch the bakery while the others were eating. Jennie had food ready morning, noon and night at all times for ten people. Isser remembers prune potatoes (whole prunes and Irish potatoes cooked in a thick, sweet sauce), delicious roast chicken and tzimmis (a brisket cooked with candied carrots and Yorkshire pudding made with matzo meal).
Friday night, the Sabbath, was a high point for the week. The entire family, with wives and children, would join Jennie and the sisters around the dining room table that sat thirty-two. They would have either fried or baked fish, rarely meat. All the holiday dinners were eaten at Jennie’s as well. The family still gets together every Friday night and on holidays, but they alternate homes and cooking. Jennie didn’t mind doing all the cooking herself, but her life was less hectic. She didn’t have to coordinate children’s schedules and drive carpools.
The oldest oven in the bakery, a Durkoff heart oven, dates from 1938. All the bread is baked in this oven. The bread is moved in and out of the oven with peels, wooden paddles and long, long handles. The revolving oven dates dates from 1951, when the bakery was expanded. Isser returned from college in 1959 to join the bakery full time. As the bakery expanded, it gradually engulfed three more houses on the block. Gottlieb’s now owns the whole block between Thirty-second and Thirty-third Streets. A store was opened at Oglethorpe Mall in 1971 and on Hilton Head Island in 1977. In 1982, with the expansion of the mall, a new store, with European fixtures, was completed in just sixty days from start to finish.
In October 1994, Gottlieb’s Bakery closed its doors for the last time. Not only the recipes but also the spirit of the bakery passed from generation to generation as the family business grew along with Savannah to become a Savannah institution. Gottlieb’s Bakery would like to express its sincere appreciation and thanks to its loyal customers all over the country who have helped make it such a success. Perhaps someday one of Isser and Ava’s sons, Richard, Laurence or Michael will reopen the beloved institution.
From the introduction to Gottlieb’s Bakery: Savannah’s Sweetest Tradition by Isser Gottlieb (Compiled by Michael, Laurence & Richard Gottlieb).
Join the Gottlieb’s as they reintroduce their famous baked goods to Savannah and the surrounding communities!