By Dan Shine
Fred Wolfe, Sr., today fondly remembered as “Pop” was known for his energy and enthusiastic conduct in the world of business, for he was certainly driven to succeed. According to his grandson Bob Wolfe, “Pop worked long hard hours for many years, and often fell asleep while kneading the dough by hand. Pop had hands like hams and muscles like Popeye. He regularly consumed a dozen hard boiled eggs while working to make up for the volume of calories he burned. For many years he worked seven days a week, went home, ate dinner and went to bed early, thoroughly exhausted.
Pop Wolfe was also known for some unusual business decisions: For example, when he visited the local A&P market which was two doors away from the bakery, he noticed that they were selling Heinz pickles for a price that he could not match, given his cost structure. When he asked the Heinz salesman how this was possible; the answer was, “A&P buys pickles by the carload.” How big was a carload? Wolfe did not know, but he would find out quickly enough. Soon a carload of pickles was delivered to Wolfe’s; and they were overstocked with pickles for an entire year: Pickles in the basement, pickles in the office, pickles everywhere. After that, the byword of Wolfe’s Bakery was, “Sell it or smell it.” Pop Wolfe had learned a painful lesson.
It is worthy of mention that when Harold Peschell opened Peschell’s Pastry Shop just down the street in 1941, a bouquet of flowers was sent to him by Wolfe’s Bakery along with a note wishing him luck, “and if you need anything, let us know.” Over the years, these two directly competing bakeries helped each other whenever they could–and it is pleasing to note that this is the way that Wolfe’s treated all of their competitors—like friends.
In retirement, Pop Wolfe had purchased a second home in West Palm Beach, Florida. There, he could be routinely spotted, walking through Worth Avenue in Palm Beach’s most exclusive shopping area, wearing sweat pants, a UConn tee shirt, and bedroom slippers with the heels mashed flat. From this, it can truly be stated that Pop was a man who was comfortable in his own skin.
And also in his later years, Pop had a home on Clear Lake in Guilford; one time during a family gathering at Pop’s home, his young grandson Bob caught his first fish, which was all of five inches long. Ignoring the urging of some family members to throw the fish back, Pop taught the boy to clean, filet and sautee the fish, after which, all twelve people in attendance had a share of the diminutive fish for dinner. Through this event, Pop’s grandson discovered a sensitive side of the gruff patriarch, and learned a lifelong lesson.
By the 1970s, Wolfe’s had one hundred employees, eight trucks, fifteen locations, and had fifty wholesale accounts. On Sundays, they sold 1000 dozen hard rolls, in addition to cakes, cookies, pastries, baked ham, cold cuts, platters, and on and on—a total of eighty different items! The family of son Bob lived just three blocks away on Court Street, so family members had a short commute to work.
But life is change, and ultimately the family business was sold in 1977, and it continued onward for five years after that. And then one day in 1982, an article appeared on the front page of the New Haven Register, saying “Wolfe’s Ovens Cold After 70 Years.” It was over: Wolfe’s Bakery had closed its doors and become a part of West Haven history. Today, many senior West Haveners can fondly recall their childhood stops at Wolfe’s, and waiting for their free cookies while their mothers were placing their orders on the way home from church on a Sunday morning.
The Wolfe’s story is similar to so many other American stories in the manner that was described so long ago by the writer Horatio Alger: A young man of humble means rises to a life of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. Pop Wolfe did all of that: He arrived in America with very little and built a business that became an institution in Connecticut. And in turn, the benefits of that business and his leadership built a solid foundation for the lives of those generations of the Wolfe family that would follow him.