Aug 11, 2011 10:19 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Katy Turnbull says that when the owner of Mandina's restaurant learned she would be reopening her grandmother's Melba toast plant, she got a big hug and was told, "Thank you. I want my garlic rounds back."
Turnbull, 23, and her sister Whitney Turnbull, 22, recently moved to New Orleans to reopen Turnbull Bakeries. After 60 years of supplying Melba toast nationally and locally, the bakery sat idle for a year after Elizabeth Turnbull died at age 89.
Then her son, Wayne Turnbull, found out that his daughters, both recent college graduates, were interested in taking it over.
Today, those garlic rounds - and Melba toast oblongs - are being produced again, much to the delight of generations of New Orleanians.
"I go way back with the Melba toast," says Jimmy Lemarie, owner of Liuzza's by the Track. "I guess from hanging out at Mandina's. I held up the corner of the bar there a number of years, 20 or 30 years."
At Liuzza's by the Track, "We served it (along) with crackers or French bread or with the gumbo or other dishes. It was an addiction.
"When (the factory) closed down, people accused me of lying," Lemarie said. "They said, `You need to buy Melba toast.' I said, `They closed, I'm sorry."'
Turnbull Bakeries again makes Melba toast rounds and oblongs under its own name and under contract for Kraft Nabisco, Keebler and Lance. All are sold in commercial food service, not in retail stores.
When Johnny Blancher's family bought Ye Olde College Inn in 2003, the restaurant was serving those Turnbull Melba Toast garlic rounds. College Inn was founded in 1933.
"It's something we maintained. It was a popular item. I'm glad to hear they're coming back," chef/owner Blancher said. "The customer base definitely still asks about them."
Doug Ryan, who works in accounting and finance, was another big fan of the garlic rounds. He found out about the factory closure at the Bon Ton Cafe.
"I was there with my neighbor, having lunch, and he said `Where are those garlic rounds?' Finally one of the waiters came over and said the plant closed down.
"We were sitting there and talking about, that wouldn't be a bad business to own. ... I finally got hold of the matriarch, Elizabeth Turnbull. She took it over when it was the size of a shotgun double, and grew to three-fourths of a block ... that was on the sheer willpower of Elizabeth Turnbull."
After she died, he and others made a bid for the factory but couldn't come to terms. After the Turnbulls reopened, they told Ryan they liked his ideas. So now Ryan has a side business named Edible Snail to help market and develop Turnbull products. It was Ryan who introduced Katy Turnbull around at Mandina's, the Bon Ton and other restaurants.
Upstairs in a pale pink office, decorated with dozens of snapshots of her granddaughters growing up, Elizabeth Turnbull ran things her way for decades. The granddaughters say they are honoring the memory of a strong woman.
"The employees still won't wear red," Whitney Turnbull said. "She hated the color red."
The sisters have purchased a house Uptown, and Katy says she loves being in New Orleans, where the family kept an apartment for their visits from Tennessee.
"I always thought I would move here after graduation," Katy said. "But if someone had told me three years ago I would be working in my grandmother's Melba toast plant, I would not have believed them."
This day, a toasty aroma pervades the air downstairs from the office. The plant's oven and toaster are both running. It is the only plant in the United States still baking original-style Melba toast, says Turnbull Bakeries chief operating officer John Riddell.
Katy Turnbull says her friends don't know what Melba toast is.
Even though it is carried to restaurant tables in cracker baskets, it's not a cracker.
Famed chef Auguste Escoffier is credited with inventing the super-thin, crispy toast in the late 1890s for a famous Australian opera singer, Helen Porter Mitchell, whose stage name was Dame Nellie Melba. (Escoffier also is said to have invented the dessert Peach Melba for her).
Low in calories and cholesterol, Melba toast has been a staple of dieters and restaurant bread baskets ever since.
But it wasn't Turnbull's initial product. First came ice cream cones.
"We were machine people," says Wayne Turnbull. "My great-grandfather invented the first ice-cream-cone machine. He went to the 1907 St. Louis World's Fair and saw people standing in line to eat ice cream."
Turnbull said the first cones were flattened pita bread, sugared and rolled into a cone. From 1907 to about 1975, the company manufactured and sold ice-cream-cone machines in Chattanooga.
"Dad thought we should get into (baking) cones, because the world needs only so many machines," Turnbull said.
Since shipping cones from Chattanooga was problematic, the Turnbulls opened a warehouse in New Orleans in 1946. By the next year, the cones were being made here. By the mid-1950s, though, his father decided they needed another product.
"He went to New York and went to the Old London Melba toast plant. They wouldn't let him see any of the Melba toast area."
But his dad did see the Melba toast served in all the restaurants he visited. There were no plants making it in the South. He came home and told his family about the new product they were going to make.
"We said, `What's Melba toast?" Turnbull remembers.
The machines the family created to make it are still in use in the factory today. All the ice-cream-cone baking went to the Chattanooga factory; the New Orleans one baked Melba toast.
"Mom always wanted to be in business," Wayne Turnbull said. "She was promoted to store manager at Spiegel in Chicago. Then she met Mr. Turnbull."
His father moved the family to New Orleans in 1948 to develop the business here. Wayne attended Alcee Fortier High School and Tulane University.
Since his father was near retirement age, his mother wanted the factory to be her business.
"He went to Galatoire's every day for lunch, and she ran the business and developed it," Turnbull said.
His mother was ahead of her time, Turnbull says. She loved Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn: strong, independent women. She dressed in heels every workday and refused to wear a hairnet or take off her jewelry in the factory. "Headstrong" is the word he uses for her.
"When my father died, we decided I would go to Chattanooga and she would run this one," Turnbull said.
From Chattanooga, Turnbull lent the New Orleans plant support in accounting, sales and machinery.
By 2001, Wayne Turnbull was ready to retire and the family was ready to sell the businesses. But his mom couldn't let go.
"She called me and said, `I can't do this. This is my love."'
But the business dwindled. Elizabeth Turnbull still dressed up and went to the office every day. Wayne Turnbull often came from Chattanooga to help. After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA trailers were installed for employees to come back to work. By the time she was in her late 80s, however, his mother was incapacitated, Wayne said.
The plant was closed in January 2010. Elizabeth Turnbull died only two months later, in March.
As for the closed plant, "The business had deteriorated, so there were no buyers," Turnbull said. "Then the girls said, `What about us? We'll give it a try."'
In addition, "We had a great reputation, and a lot of people knew us."
His old management team from the Chattanooga plant came to New Orleans with him, including chief operating officer John Riddell. Katy is going to all the business meetings.
"We're kind of like the Blues Brothers," Wayne Turnbull joked. "We're restarting the band."
The impetus was 23-year-old Katy. She and Whitney grew up in Chattanooga, but always visited their grandmother here.
"I had just graduated from the University of Alabama with a journalism degree, and had no idea what I was going to do," Katy said.
"I was cleaning machinery the first month. Now I'm doing a bit of everything. I definitely have the most interesting job of all my friends.
"The more I get into it, the more interesting it is."
Whitney Turnbull started at the plant in July after graduation from the University of Denver with a major in sociology and minor in business. After hearing the stories told at her grandmother's funeral, she said, she realized how much everybody loved and respected her.
"I never knew what I was going to do," said Whitney, who changed her major a couple of times. "My sister was doing this, and I thought about the opportunity. I decided it wouldn't feel right if I didn't. It was not an easy decision, but it feels right now."
The two have different abilities, she said, adding that they will work well together. Plus, "Living in New Orleans sounded really fun," she said. "It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."