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A history of cookies

Hardtack biscuit maker for 200 years, Bent's is sold

Email|Print| Text size + By Suzette Martinez Standring
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2008

Bent's Cookie Factory, an institution in Milton, is being sold by the family that has run it for 63 years, and with it may go the fate of the biscuit called hardtack that sustained many a sailor and Civil War soldier.

The buyer is a catering company whose identity will not be revealed until the sale is final in about three weeks. James Pierotti, the son of owner Eugene Pierotti Sr., said he didn't know if the deli would close temporarily between owners.

The elder Pierotti, age 79, is retiring to live in Hanover to enjoy his Labrador puppy, woodworking, gardening and possibly raise chickens, his son said.

"He wants to watch his grandsons play T-ball," said James Pierotti. None of the family's third-generation siblings - Eugene Jr., Mary, and James - wishes to assume the family business.

"But I can say that they will continue Bent's existing deli, catering, and baking services," said James Pierotti, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley.

What remains unclear is whether the new owners will continue producing hardtack, the 207-year-old company's original product, a dense flour and water biscuit that needed no refrigeration and was a mainstay on sea voyages and later of Civil War troops. It is still mail-ordered today by Civil War afficionados for re-enactments, college history departments, and campers.

Placed for sale on Feb. 15 through Daniel J. Flynn & Co. of Quincy, the building and business fetched $700,000.

"It's remarkable that it was done in such a short time and we got full price," said Pierotti.

The 10,000-square-foot building at 7 Pleasant St. off Route 28 includes a first-floor deli and cafe, second-floor baking kitchen, and third-floor home and office space. Bent's was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

Little known is that two Bent family cracker companies competed against each other for about 20 years in the late 19th century, according to James Pierotti, a historian and author from Hingham. The first business, the Bent Cracker Factory that opened on Highland Street in Milton in 1801 and moved to Eliot Street in the late 1880s, was credited by the Time Life Cookbook on Cookies and Crackers in 1982 with inventing the first water cracker. That business, founded by descendants of Josiah Bent, was acquired by the National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco, but ultimately closed.

Its family-owned competitor, the store now changing hands, was G. H. Bent, which opened in 1891 at its current Pleasant Street site. Founded by George Henry Bent, Josiah Bent's grandson, the company became one of the largest cookie manufacturers and wholesalers, supplying accounts such as Keebler, SS Pierce, May Department Stores, R. H. Macy Company, Sunshine Biscuits, and the Great Northern Railway Co.

In 1944 at the age of 55, Arthur Pierotti bought the factory as "a retirement lark," his grandson James Pierotti said, because he had sold his soda bottling plant in Natick due to the sugar shortage caused by war rationing.

It was a lark that turned into a sweet success when Arthur Pierotti won a cookie contract with the Navy that lasted from World War II through Vietnam. His son Eugene took over after Arthur Pierotti's death in 1984.

James Pierotti said Milton town administrator Kevin J. Mearn once recalled to him that it was a nice feeling to be eating Bent's cookies while serving on a Naval carrier in Vietnam.

From 1944 through the 1970s, Bent's was nicknamed "The Broken Cookie Factory" because all the good cookies went to the military and wholesale customers. In 1951, broken cookies sold for 8 cents a pound.

"If the Titanic had made it to New York, it would have been a big account because G. H. Bent had already been serving its sister ship, the RMS Olympic, on the White Star Lines," said James Pierotti.

In 1995, mega-stores eroded Bent's wholesale business, so the company focused on catering, deli, cafe, and online ordering services. Twice, Bent's was designated "Hidden Jewel and Best Sandwich" by Phantom Gourmet. In 1999, its website increased mail orders from $5,000 to $80,000 the first year and tapped into a historian's market for hardtack.

Pierotti recalled famous mail-order customers, such as food critic James Beard, singer Lena Horne, Frank Perdue of Perdue chicken farms, designer Gloria Vanderbilt, writer Louis L'Amour, and PBS NewsHour's Jim Lehrer.

Bent's hardtack made cameo movie appearances in historical movies such as "Glory," "Master and Commander," "Into the West," "Hildago," and "Gods and Generals."

The hardtack business and antique baking equipment will be auctioned off separately if the new owners don't want to continue its production, Pierotti said.

Inside the old-fashioned storefront, steel tubs brim with macaroons, lemon sugar, and chocolate chip cookies. Wooden stands display breads and cakes and regular customers order fresh sandwiches.

"The Bent name has a lot of memories for people in this area, but it's time to pass the baking torch to another family," said Pierotti.

Contact Suzette Standring at suzmar@comcast.net.

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