Food for Thought Through the Viewfinder: A Photo of a Van de Kamp’s Bakery Store, 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There was an interesting and notable confluence at work when the brothers-in-law, Theodore Van de Kamp and Lawrence Frank, rapidly built a highly successful chain of “Van de Kamp Holland Dutch Bakery” stores throughout greater Los Angeles during the 1920s. The two, who came to the Angel City from Milwaukee and opened a tiny potato chip stand on Spring Street in 1915, turned to baked goods because of a shortage of potatoes (or is it potatos?) during the First World War.

The duo quickly pivoted to baking and, in short order, built the business and brand, which was made emblematic by the quaint windmills, created by noted film set designer Harry Oliver, whose work on the so-called Witch’s House in Beverly Hills has been featured in this blog previously. The object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a 1925 snapshot of a Mrs. Todd standing in front of one of the Van de Kamp stores, the location of which is not yet known—though if someone out there can identify the spot, please leave a comment!

An early mention of a Van de Kamp’s product at the bottom left of this ad from the Hollywood Citizen, 30 May 1919.

The factors that helped develop the enterprise so quickly included the energies and talents of Van de Kamp, who was particularly acute when it came to real estate, and Frank, who had a knack for product development. The rise of programmatic architecture also was part of the equation, as has been briefly discussed in a prior post here with respect to such novelties as the Brown Derby restaurant and other structures built in the shape of objects and which featured a snapshot of the original Van de Kamp’s at Western Avenue and Beverly Boulevard and gave a brief background of the enterprise.

Then there was the sheer magnitude of regional growth during another the many booms that burst forth during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this one peaking in 1923. Finally, there was the dramatic increase in the grocery business with supermarket chains like Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, Ralphs and others, and Van de Kamp was able to both develop strong relationships to sell its baked goods in those while also operating its own stores. The evolution of advertising, with a couple of contemporary examples shown here, is also part of the formula.

Citizen, 28 August 1923.

Lawrence Frank came from a Jewish family with his father, Nathan, who was a butcher born in New York City born to parents from what became Germany, and his mother Bertha Adler, a native of Austria. Nathan’s father, Louis, opened a meat marked in Milwaukee in 1860 and about two decades later employed forty people and processed a half million pounds of bologna sausage annually with the Crown Brand sold throughout the United States and in Europe.

Nathan Frank also operated a meat market in the famous town of Deadwood, South Dakota, but not long after Lawrence was born, his mother Bertha became ill and the Franks spent a couple of years in Sierra Madre, where, at the foothills of the San Gabriel (formerly known as the Sierra Madre) Mountains, sanitaria were numerous for those in poor health. She died, however, in 1890, and the Franks remained in the Midwest for almost another quarter century.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 1 September 1925.

Meanwhile, Theodore Van de Kamp was born in Milwaukee in 1891 to Henry, a compositor and printer who hailed from New Jersey but whose parents migrated from Holland, and Sylvia Rebhan, who was from Wisconsin and from German parentage. One of his early jobs was as a clerk in an insurance office, but Lawrence Frank migrated to Los Angeles and, in June 1913, married Van de Kamp’s older sister Henrietta. In short order, the rest of the Van de Kamp clan headed to the Angel City.

It was apparently a $200 investment that led to the opening by Frank and Van de Kamp of the tiny little shop, staffed by Henrietta Frank and her sister Marion Van de Kamp, on Spring Street between 2nd and 3rd streets that specialized in “Saratoga Chips,” so called from their original place of manufacture, Saratoga Springs, New York and which were the precursor to the modern potato chip. The inventor of the Saratoga Chip was George Crum, who was African-American and Native American, and the snack, established in 1853, quickly became an American favorite.

Illustrated Daily News, 8 September 1925.

As noted above, shortages of potatoes during the First World War led Frank and Van de Kamp to move to baking and, by 1919, the enterprise’s coffee cakes were being sold in such stores as the Acme Market in Hollywood. By summer 1923, there were ten stores with the windmill feature designed by Oliver, there were more than 30 within two years, including, outside of Los Angeles, in Alhambra, Glendale and South Pasadena, and then another dozen by summer 1926, with Beverly Hills and Huntington Park added to locales beyond the Angel City limits and the 42 outlets divided into eight districts.

Moreover, the menu of foods offered by Van de Kamp’s topped 150, including Boston baked beans; Dutch noodles; those potato chips that got everything started; pretzels; 18 types of bread; 34 varieties of cake; ten kinds of rolls; and much more. A September 1925 edition of the “Susanna Saver” column for home makers in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News observed that,

The quaint little blue windmills from whence our goodies come have always fascinated me. The very deliciousness of their caks [sic] and cookies has seemed to me to be quite in keeping with the spic’n span-ness of the blue and white Van de Kamp bakeries.

“Susanna” was invited by the company’s vice-president, Hubert J.G. Bruning, to tour the Van de Kamp plant on Werdin Place, now an alley, between 2nd and 3rd streets in the Little Tokyo area of downtown, and she noted that the firm recently acquired an adjacent building for expansion of their rapidly-growing enterprise and with equipment that would allow for faster production of bread to meet demand, with almost 13,000 loaves baked daily. It was noted that the process of making this staple was done completely by electric appliances and no human hands actually touched the product, while it was added that a signature fruit cake recipe took three years of tinkering to get right.

Los Angeles Times, 17 August 1926.

A great deal of time on the tour was spent inspecting where cookies, cakes and other sweets were produced, but she also gushed over the baked beans, which were cooked in ovens, not over a fire, and done so from 12 to 14 hours in large earthen crocks. The brown bread made to accompany the beans was cooked with steam as would be done with plum pudding. “Susanna” concluded that,

One big secret of this establishment’s success, I think, is the fact that all of Van de Kamp’s employees are so happy. There are about 250 in all and they have all of the most modern equipment with which to work. They are enabled to do their work as easily as possible and i return are expected to do it efficiently. Many of them have been with the firm since its beginning in 1915, but all agree that the Van de Kamp Holland-Dutch Bakeries is a most human organization in which to work. The personal touch is so very evident there; the workers are not machines, they are human beings who are happy to work in such a pleasant atmosphere.

Obviously, one has to consider what was demonstrated for a visitor like “Susanna,” but the skyrocketing growth of the company continued unabated for the remainder of the Roaring Twenties. By the end of the decade, there wee 67 stores in greater Los Angeles with annual sales topping $2.5 million and the Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel of 1 March 1929 noted that Van de Kamp’s “large variety of high-grade bakery goods, and their unique methods of merchandising have gained for them nation-wide fame.”

Times, 29 May 1929.

Expansion outside the region was greatly enhanced in at that time when Van de Kamp’s acquired, for about a quarter million dollars, the Chatterton System of Bakeries of Seattle, which added more than two-dozen stores in Washington as well as an up-to-date baking plant. Beyond this, Van de Kamp and Bruning were formulating plans for another stores in the Evergreen State.

At the end of May, the Los Angeles Times reported that expansion plans included the issuing of more common and preferred stock in the company with existing stockholders given the privilege of subscribing at discounted share prices. Even with the increase to 100,000 common and 4,000 preferred shares, Van de Kamps was to maintain 75% ownership of stock, but proceeds from the issue were to be partially expended on the Chatterton deal. It was added that net profit for 1928 was just shy of $120,000 or about $2.50 a share for the common stock.

Monrovia News-Post, 6 December 1929.

In June 1931, the firm built a large plant in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles near the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. For the next quarter century, through the dire years of the Great Depression, the rationing of materiel during World War II and then the next major boom of the postwar years, Frank and Van de Kamp ran the business.

The latter died in May 1956 at age 65 and, the next month, the former was involved in a near-fatal car accident that led him to curtail his activities and sell the business to General Baking of New York City. By then, Van de Kamps operated 240 supermarket service units and separate stores, four coffee shops and a drive-in restaurant and its sales topped $24 million a year. Later that year, a new store opened in a rapidly developing area within a mile of the Homestead at Hacienda Boulevard and Gale Avenue in what was still known as North Whittier Heights, soon changed to Hacienda Heights. Van de Kamp’s was shuttered in 1990 after bankruptcy, though Ralphs still sells its own bakery products under the name.

Times, 11 December 1929.

Another important element to the story is that, in 1922, Frank and Van de Kamp’s brother, Walter, opened the venerable restaurant, the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, originally known as Montgomery’s Country Inn and then Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn before the current name was adopted in 1925. The distinctive architecture of the structure was another Harry Oliver creation and the eatery is still around.

In 1938, the duo opened the Lawry’s The Prime Rib restaurant in Beverly Hills and it, too, is very much with us, while that year also marked Frank’s creation of the famed Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, still made by McCormick and Company, which bought the Lawry’s firm in 1979. Frank’s son, Richard, who took over management of Lawry’s, purchased, in 1965, a restaurant in Corona del Mar in Orange County and renovated it with the new name of Five Crowns—it remains a widely-known and popular fine dining establishment today. Six years later, Lawry’s California Center opened, though this is now the Los Angeles River Center, while the Glassell Park plant is the Van de Kamp Innovation Center as the northeast campus of Los Angeles City College.

The photo is a great item reflecting the dramatic growth of Van de Kamp’s, as well as an interesting example of programmatic architecture with the whimsy of Oliver’s design, during the Roaring Twenties. Again, if anyone knows the location, please leave a comment and we’ll edit this post accordingly. For more information about Van de Kamp’s, check out a 2005 article from Cecilia Rasmussen of the Times, a 2016 piece by Hadley Meares for KCET, a blog post about a surviving store’s windmill in South Los Angeles, and a Los Angeles Conservancy web page about a now-restored Van de Kamp’s windmill at a Denny’s in Arcadia.

Concerning Lawry’s, there is some general history at the restaurants’ website, while the late Richard Frank wrote a very interesting piece about the family’s history in one of his “Frank Talk” installments from 2016.

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