Catherine Clark of Brownberry Ovens Knows There's a Lot of Dough in Bread
Catherine Clark was entertaining friends around her pool in Northern California when one young guest suddenly blurted out, "I just realized—you're the lady on the label!" Clark responded with a smile, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Both the lady and the label are part of modern business legend. She is the 73-year-old multimillionaire founder of Brownberry Ovens, whose packaged breads, croutons and stuffing still bear a drawn likeness of her face. Now the energetic Clark has launched two new projects: a Sonoma County, Calif. vineyard and a planned shop near San Francisco's touristy Fisherman's Wharf from which she'll cater elegant picnics featuring "wonderful wines, lovely cheeses and, of course, good breads."
Clark is a genuine expert on the subject. Starting with an old Wisconsin recipe in 1946, she built Brownberry into one of the nation's largest all-natural bakeries, before selling out in 1972 to the Minneapolis food conglomerate, Peavey Co., for $5.5 million. (She retains a seat on the board.) In her first year Clark showed a profit of $59. This year sales should top $25 million.
Clark was married (to a Milwaukee banker, Russell Clark, Harvard '27), the mother of two daughters and 40 years old when she got the itch to start her own business. Using "really old-time wheat made from freshly ground whole kernels," she worked out of a tiny bakery in Oconomowoc, Wis. while-friends from church glued labels on the bags. The name? "That old saying, 'brown as a berry,' popped into my mind," Clark recalls. (She refers to regular grocery bread as "that white stuff mothers use as a shovel for the peanut butter.")
Mail orders made up a substantial part of Brownberry's business until 1973. "Just after we discontinued our mailings, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, asking us for bread," Catherine recalls. "When we asked him where he had heard about us, he said Chief Justice Warren Burger had served him some. We sent him a few loaves."
Like most women at the top, Clark paid a price getting there. "I was so different from my housewife friends that my success created a certain amount of animosity," she says. "It hurt. Some even suggested I was neglecting my children. But they ate well!" Daughter Penny, a 42-year-old San Francisco decorator, will still eat only Mom's bread, and Sue, 40, a New York photojournalism receives a regular supply from home.
Clark, who writes a syndicated cooking column, is often asked by women how they can get started in business. "They write, 'I make a carrot cake that my friends say is the best they've ever tasted,' " Clark sighs. "I always warn them to be prepared to sacrifice something. For a woman, a normal life and a successful business aren't possible."
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