Whitman’s closing leaves downtown Waynesville ‘hungry for a bakery’

A donut or cannoli will no longer be a hop, skip and a jump away for people in downtown Waynesville.

Whitman’s Bakery closed its doors this month, ending a 66-year run as a beloved hometown bakery. Whitman’s was a mainstay on Main Street for decades, churning out homemade bread, cookies, pies, cakes, pastries — and, of course, donuts. It had been passed down through three generations of the same family until five years ago, when it was sold to new owners from Arizona, Margie and Roger Eckert.

The Eckerts are walking away from the business this week after deciding not to renew their lease on the building.

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“Many thanks for all those who supported us at Whitman’s,” Marge said. She would not talk about the bakery’s closing, or the reason why. But she did mention wanting to be active in the 2012 presidential campaign.

“Our country needs new strong leadership in Washington, D.C., to jumpstart this longtime failing economy,” she said.

When the Eckerts bought Whitman’s five years ago, the bakery business was brand new to them. Wanting to leave the bakery in good hands, Linda Howell — granddaughter of Whitman’s founder — agreed to stay on as a mentor, teaching the new owners the recipes and how-to’s of the business. Howell’s daughter and son-in-law stayed on through the transition as well.

The arrangement was short-lived, however. Less than two weeks after taking over Whitman’s, the new owners asked the old owners to stop coming in to work, that they were no longer needed.

Linda Howell, whose grandfather Dewitt Whitman started the business in 1945, has been saddened by the chain of events — not only to see the anchor institution close down but also to witness the decline of the business during the past five years.

Until Howell sold the bakery, it wasn’t uncommon to see lines out the door. It had 30 employees at its peak.

But, business has steadily trailed off since the new owners took over and began the first of many changes to the menu, both to the baked good side and the lunch counter.

Howell, as well as her father and grandfather before her, hung their aprons on their fresh, made-from-scratch baked goods. Customers apparently liked the bakery just as it was and didn’t respond well to the pre-made baked goods that started turning up in the cases.

Dale Howell, who along with his wife ran Whitman’s for 30 years, believes a new set of owners could rebuild the community’s desire for a Main Street bakery.

“I think once the word gets out that it has changed hands, and they are now offering fresh made breads and pastries as Whitman’s used to, and people come in and find it actually is a good bakery, there is no question Waynesville is big enough for a bakery,” Dale Howell said. “It is a very viable business.”

Linda Howell said Whitman’s decline has left a void in the downtown community.

“Waynesville has always had a bakery where you could get bread and a birthday cake and a cookie,” she said. “It was always a hub of activity. You could always meet someone there.”

The closure of Whitman’s was decried as “a shame” as the Main Street community learned the news this week.

“That sucks,” said Hayley Moralez, a Waynesville resident. “It’s the only bakery here.”

Although she is upset by the loss, Moralez and her husband, James, agreed that “the quality went down” when bakery changed ownership.

Its hours had become inconsistent as well. Nurse Amber Pitts said she has wanted go to the bakery since moving to the area about a year ago.

“Every time I come by, they were closed,” Pitts said.

Prior to selling the business about five years ago, Linda and Dale Howell lived and breathed the bakery business for 30 years after buying Whitman’s from her father and her uncle in 1976.

It was a grueling life. Dale Howell got to work at 2:45 a.m. six days a week. Linda Howell got to sleep in comparatively late but worked until late into the night.

“Dale or I one were always in there,” Linda Howell said.

Their own married life was intertwined with work, crossing paths at home only while sleeping. It was a family affair with three generations under one roof at one point — Linda Howell, her daughter, and her father who still came in to decorate cakes after he retired.

“We loved it and loved the people we worked with. The people who were there loved their work or they weren’t there long,” Linda Howell said.

However, when Dale Howell’s rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult and eventually impossible to roll out certain dough, the couple decided to retire. Their daughter and son-in-law had joined them in the bakery business by then, but they had small children and couldn’t take on the burden of ownership. So, it was put on the market.

And that’s where it will soon be once more. The Howells still own the building, and ownership of the business will likely revert to the Howells as well, who hope to find new owners willing to make a go of it.

“The town wants a bakery. It needs a bakery. The town can support a bakery. Someone who goes in there with baking experience can make it work,” Linda Howell said. “The town is hungry for it. It is waiting for the right person.”

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