A key figure in the world of Cleveland baking has passed.
Carl Davis, who built the Davis Bakery business with his family and spoke in schools about careers in the baking industry, died on Sunday, Jan. 13 at age 93.
Davis began working in a bakery as a youth after his parents divorced, and he left school to help support his family. He was 19 when he opened the first bakery on South Taylor Road in 1939 with his older brothers, Julius and Ben. Their sister, Ann, later managed one of the stores. Davis’ son, Joel, recalled how Ann, whose married name left many not realizing she was a Davis, would go to a bakery as a “snoopervisor,” posing as a worker to get to the bottom of a problem or solve a theft. Another brother, Alfred, who was killed in World War II, made deliveries on his bicycle as a boy.
Joel Davis said the brothers did not have enough money for the Hobart mixer they needed, so Hobart Corp. took a down payment, installed the mixer and put a meter on it that registered the quarters required to operate it. When they started, Hobart executives provided rolls of quarters to help the business succeed.
Durham “Bodi” Reeves, who worked for Davis Bakery from 1947 until 2007, started at the Cleveland Heights location at 1904 S. Taylor Road, which was destroyed by a fire. “He was a good guy,” Reeves said. “He worked right along with you. If you ran into something you didn’t know, he knew it and he would show you how to do it.”
In 1961, Davis and his brothers bought Smayda Bakery and the Lakewood Bakery when those companies went out of business. They moved most of their production to the Smayda plant, but the Cedar Center location continued to bake for the east side stores, including ones in Mayland, Eastgate and Village Square shopping centers. Bakery boxes included the line “North, east, south, west, Davis bakery is the best.”
At its peak a good four decades ago, there were 39 stores and 450 employees. According to Joel Davis, Cleveland was one of the last major cities to have blue laws prohibiting commercial activity on Sunday, so the bakeries “did lots of business on Sundays and evenings. People went to bakeries to get a loaf of bread. One-stop shopping changed the baking industry.”
The company now has the Davis Bakery Delicatessens in Woodmere and Warrensville Heights. It also sells to institutions, including area supermarkets, hotels and hospitals.
Joel Davis said the bakery’s out-of-town business requires its product to be kosher, so the plant went kosher more than three years ago. The items sold at Heinen’s on Green Road in University Heights are labeled Davis Baking because the mashigiach for the Quality Kosher label didn’t want people to think Davis Bakery is kosher. Despite that, the founders’ father made the brothers promise to never use lard in their products. The company has never used lard for that reason.
John Stapleton, a Davis Bakery employee for more than 30 years, said of Carl Davis, “When I was a kid, he used to scare me, he just had a certain demeanor, but once you got to know him, he was a sweetheart.” Stapleton, who “learned a lot from him,” was young when he got into an accident in Davis’ car during a delivery. “I was scared out of my mind,” he recalled, but Davis was “nonchalant” once he ascertained everyone was OK.”
While Davis had maintenance staff, he was a handyman himself. “In his mid-80s, he was building us a microwave cart,” said Stapleton. He also did electrical work. “He did it right,” Stapleton said, “but he said it’s guaranteed until it breaks.”
Avid horsemen, the Davis brothers bought 25 acres in Willoughby Hills and built a barn across from the Cleveland Metroparks. All were Masons and Al Koran Shriners, in the horse division.
In the last 25 years, Davis spent long periods in Florida, where he began to practice marquetry, decorating wood surfaces with colorful natural woods. He continued baking at home and gave challah to his neighbors.
Joel Davis now runs the bakery. Many family members have worked for the business, including Joel's sister Janice, who retired after more than 40 years.