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Sweet success

Now marking its 60th year, Peggy Lawton turns out baked goods that New Englanders still hanker for

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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Even if the name Peggy Lawton doesn't ring a bell, you've probably seen - and perhaps even tasted - those individually wrapped fudge brownies and three-packs of crunchy "choco-chip" cookies that display the name in sub shops, pizza parlors, and convenience stores all over New England.

And every single one of those baked treats is made in East Walpole, at Peggy Lawton Kitchen Inc.'s headquarters on Washington Street.

It's a nondescript building, and there's no sign above the front door. No storefront windows. No banner announcing the company's 60th anniversary.

Nothing to indicate this is home to a commercial bakery that produces hundreds of thousands of cookies and brownies every week. And nothing that suggests this delectable New England institution is reaching a turning point in its history.

"People in town don't even know we're here," said William H. Wolf, who is acting president of Peggy Lawton Kitchens Inc. and has worked there since 1972.

Even those who know about the company probably don't realize there's no one named Peggy Lawton. The name comes from the couple who started the business, Peggy and Lawton Wolf.

Like his parents, William H. Wolf prefers to stay out of the limelight and let the product line speak for itself. The company has no website. It has no marketing department. The only place Peggy Lawton advertises is on its retail display racks and, of course, on the clear wrapper that encases each brownie and cookie pack. On each is the familiar logo: a woman in an old-fashioned dress and apron, standing over a cast-iron wood stove.

"The packaging is more of our trademark than the name," said Wolf, a 59-year-old Foxborough resident. "If you tell people Peggy Lawton cookies, brownies, they probably don't know what you're talking about. But then if they see the package, they know."

This strategy appears to have worked so far. From its bustling bakery in Walpole, Peggy Lawton's fudge brownies and five flavors of cookies (choco-chip, oatmeal, butter crunch, chunk chocolate, and sugar shortbread) have quietly built a devoted following all over the country.

"Peggy Lawton is comfort food," said "Fast Eddie" Cogliano, food services director for Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole. "The cookies and brownies are fresh. When you taste one, it tastes just like it would have 25 years ago. . . . You're never disappointed."

Cogliano, who has worked in the food service business for 35 years, said he also holds Peggy Lawton in high regard because it's locally owned and operated.

With most snack makers, "you just don't know where they make the stuff," said Cogliano. "Have you been over [to Peggy Lawton Kitchens]? It's like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Today we don't have much of that industry around here anymore."

Foodie websites Roadfood.com and Chowhound.com are filled with scores of comments from Peggy Lawton fans who've posted tips on where to find the trademarked treats.

One budding Massachusetts-based entrepreneur is even selling Peggy Lawton cookies and brownies on eBay, hoping to profit from the collective nostalgic sweet tooth of New England transplants craving a taste from home. The seller must believe there's a big demand; a recent listing was offering 12 packs of cookies for $12.95, plus shipping. A three-pack or an individual brownie typically sells for 50 cents around here.

The company's history dates back to the 1940s, when the Wolfs ran a luncheonette called The Sampler. It was a busy little restaurant in Dedham Square, where the Wolfs served breakfast and lunch to teachers, courthouse employees, and other working folks. Peggy's fudge brownie recipe quickly became a favorite among these regulars and always sold out.

"They were a very big hit," said Peggy, who's now 93 years old and living in Needham.

Her husband came to believe that these hot-selling brownies had the potential to become a viable business on their own.

He sat down and ran the numbers. It looked like this could work. So he took the plunge, and Peggy Lawton was born in 1949.

The first Peggy Lawton shop was located at 252 Bussey Street in East Dedham. Lawton rented the space for $20 a month.

"The first one was a rickety old place, wooden. . . . It was small," recalled Peggy, who is retired but retains the title as owner of Peggy Lawton Kitchen Inc.

"When I started baking brownies, it was in my kitchen," she said. "I baked them in the kitchen, and then [Lawton] took the pans to the place we rented to pack them and deliver them."

The Peggy Lawton brand made its debut on the counters of soda fountains, diners, and drugstores in Dedham and surrounding towns. As the business expanded in the 1950s, the company moved to bigger locations in Dedham and Hyde Park, before settling in East Walpole in 1961.

The Wolfs bought an old movie theater on Washington Street and transformed it into a spacious baking facility. Rows of seats were removed and replaced by hulking commercial ovens. The projectionist booth was converted to office space.

Business continued to grow until 1964, when an explosion destroyed the bakery on Washington Street.

After that, William H. Wolf said his father was "ready to throw in the towel," but the employees persuaded him to rebuild the facility. And so they did. Eighty-four days after the explosion, the ovens were relighted and baking resumed. And it hasn't stopped since.

Lawton Wolf died in 2004, but over the years, Peggy Lawton Kitchens Inc. has managed to survive, and thrive, in an ever-changing, and increasingly consolidating, food industry.

Today, the company employs 20 people and produces more than a half-million cookies and brownies a week. The company's seven trucks deliver the baked goods all over the Northeast, as far south as New Jersey. The company is a leaner operation than it once was (at its peak in the early 1980s, it had 44 employees).

The market for the company's products has also been shrinking, as its original customer base of independently owned drugstores and restaurants has disappeared. Those local businesses have been replaced by franchises governed by national chains, which prefer to carry snacks that have a six-month shelf life and are produced in quantities large enough to supply the whole chain, according to Wolf.

"Because we're not really big enough to supply a lot of the national franchises, and our shelf life is shorter, we don't fit in with their plans. So, like McDonald's, Burger King, or Wendy's . . . they're not interested," said Wolf.

Even if a local franchise owner wants to carry Peggy Lawton products, it doesn't matter, said Wolf.

"The people making the decisions are somewhere else," said Wolf. "And as businesses keep getting bigger, there are fewer and fewer people making those decisions."

Getting high-quality ingredients has also become more difficult as suppliers have closed or been acquired by larger companies, according to Wolf.

But Peggy Lawton's biggest challenge may lie ahead. Wolf isn't sure who his successor will be. His five children are engaged in other pursuits: One works at an orphanage in India, one is in the Army, one works for a social services agency, and the two youngest are still in school. His sister, Kathi, lives in Alabama.

So the question of the company's future remains unanswered, and Wolf doesn't have a guess right now.

He has a business to run. On a recent afternoon, that meant tracking down the best producer of brown sugar, after learning that his usual supplier in Louisiana was stretched thin.

And what's been the secret to Peggy Lawton's success?

"Hard work," said Peggy Wolf. "It was a small company, family-controlled, we didn't have anyone telling us how to run it."

"The products are still the same as when we began. The best ingredients you can find. No preservatives."

She added with a laugh: "And we never gave out our recipe."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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