The History of Houston’s Bakery Thrift Stores

Howdy, folks, and welcome back to HHR. Today, we’re diving into a topic at least some of you will remember: Sunbeam/Flowers Bakery Thrift/Outlets. Growing up in Houston, visiting the Bakery Thrift store was always a treat. It was a chance to get your hands on goodies and junk food at such a discounted price that there was no way mom or dad would turn you down! The Bakery Thrift Store, or Bakery Outlet, as they more commonly operate these days, is not a new idea, nor is it original to Houston. However, the stores have impacted many generations of Houstonians due to their prevalence. There were two major chains of bakery thrifts in town, Mrs. Bairds and Sunbeam, and today, we’re looking at the latter. This store in question is located at 3000 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 77007, and is one of the final bakery outlets in the state. The history of this particular store starts with Schott’s Bakery, which was established by the Schott family in 1893. Mr. Schott was one of the most prominent early bakers in Houston. At the time, he baked at home and delivered his bread via horse-drawn cart. By the turn of the century, Schotts needed to expand and found refuge on the city’s outskirts along Washington Ave. The space would host a vast modern bakery but did not initially feature an outlet store. As one of Houston’s largest bakeries at the time, Schotts began contract baking early on. For example, they baked San Antonio-invented ButterKrust for Houstonians in the 1920s. Before this, bread had been a reasonably regional thing. While certain types of bread were available everywhere, brands usually didn’t follow. As the prominence of contract baking grew, so did the brands themselves. Most of the brands also offered some satisfaction guarantee of freshness. With bread being the responsibility of the baker, this created a market for the Thrift Stores, which sold products nearing, or sometimes even past, their expiration date.

Bakery Thrift Stores were no fancy affair. They were usually relatively small and bare inside. Particular emphasis wasn’t put on the products; they weren’t trying to sell you on anything, as chances are if you went to this store, you knew what you wanted. As brands nationalized, Sunbeam became the exclusive brand of Schott’s. While the baker still existed on paper, most people associated the company with the bread brand. By the 1960s, Sunbeam convinced Schotts to open the Bakery Thrift store. From what I can find, it was likely the first dedicated Bakery Thrift Store in town, but obviously, individual bakers and stores were still selling their own day-old bread. The new store was a hit, and it wasn’t long until the competition caught on. By the 70s, Mrs. Bairds and Pepridge Farm were opening their own bakery thrifts in Houston. Schotts would keep up with the competition, adding new locations across town. In 1981, Flowers Bakery purchased Schotts bakery and continued to expand its bakery thrift presence. This consolidation of bakers, along with the addition of thrift stores, which were slowly renamed outlets in the 80s, was occurring nationally. By the late 80s, bakery thrifts had peaked in Houston and were extremely popular. However, this popularity would prove to be a part of the undoing. One of the first blows to the bakery thrift was places like Wal-Mart. While they didn’t offer day-old products, they would try to cut special deals with bakers to feature lower prices than the competition. Next was the expansion of this program to other retailers on a national level, like Hostess via Big Lots. As competition increased, it seems that these stores slowly became obsolete. I remember visiting thrift bakeries well into the 2000s, where nothing had ever changed, but my recent visit to this location revealed that the idea of day-old goodies on sale is somewhat gone. While the store did have a limited selection of nearly expired goods, the deals were nothing special, and most of the merchandise was new and fully priced. There was also a bit of oddball grocery stuffed wherever they could put it. Mrs. Bairds and Pepridge Farms stores have all but disappeared as well. While there is no official “cause of death” for these stores, it does seem that competition, including internal undercutting, was likely a factor in their demise. If you have the chance, I’d still recommend stopping by the bakery thrift on Washington. If nothing else, it’s worth smelling the fresh bread!

Anonymous in Houston, someone old enough to remember when shopping at bakery thrift stores, were common, has the following to say about his experiences shopping frequently at a former suburban Houston Flowers thrift store:

“We were regular shoppers at the Flowers thrift store at the corner of Jones Rd. & Woodedge Dr. in the 1980s back when that location was still open. Even by 1980s standards, those thrift stores were very austere. The austere Jones Rd. Flowers store really contrasted with the Hexa-Shell gas station across the street! Unlike the modern Flowers thrift store which Mike is featuring in this post, the 1980s Flowers stores really did focus on core bakery products and so the 1980s stores were more austere than what is in Mike’s photos. About the only thing that was fancy about the 1980s Flowers thrift store was that they did have a cookie jar on the counter with free cookies.

The Jones Rd. Flowers was never very busy and so I’m not surprised that the store did not make it into the new Millennium. It was unfortunate that the store didn’t attract more shoppers since there were great bargains to be had on bread that was still fresh enough to make meals for the week even if the inventory was deemed to be too old for the supermarkets. Shopping at that Flowers thrift store felt like what shopping must have been like in the 1940s or so right down to the little old ladies who worked the cash register at the store. Shopping at Flowers was certainly a unique experience and I’m glad these bakery thrift stores are still around even if they aren’t as plentiful as they were years ago.”

11 comments

    1. Ugh, I hate when WordPress/Blogger eats my comments!

      Anyhow, this post is a great reminder for me to stop in and check out one of the Flowers day old bread / thrift stores. I still occasionally pass by them in Georgia, with most looking similar to the one we see here.

      The main exception is the Flowers Bakery Store in Thomasville, GA. (Search it on Google, WordPress seems to get mad at the links) That location looks markedly nicer, presumably because it is adjacent to Flowers Bakery #101 and just a few miles from the corporate headquarters. Thomasville should also sound familiar to readers of my blog since it was Sing Oil Company’s hometown!

      As for this store, I’ve noticed how it and most other bread thrift stores I’ve come across primarily stock Mrs. Freshley’s snack cakes instead of the “higher end” Tastykake equivalents. I wonder if the few odd Tastykake SKUs are items which don’t have a comparable option in the “budget” brand? Regardless, I still remember seeing the Mrs. Freshley’s items in thrift stores even back in the days before Flowers bought Tastykake and killed off the Blue Bird brand. I was devastated when Blue Bird was axed – even though the Tastykake Pecan Swirls were identical to the old Bluebird Pecan Spins, I still preferred the old brand!

      Additionally, it is nice to see the old Nature’s own plastered above the window (you can compare that to the more recent but still dated logo on the sign above). The original logo was designed by Al Cuneo, whom I met with a while back when researching a Sing marketing campaign from the 1970’s. It was interesting to hear how he helped launch a national bread brand during a time when perceptions of healthy foods were changing.

      Cool stuff!

      1. Glad you enjoyed it! If you comments get caught in the spam filter, send me an email and I can manually approve it!

      2. That Flowers thrift store in Thomasville is certainly nicer looking than anything Flowers I’ve seen in Houston! I’m guessing being near the corporate headquarters has a lot to do with that. If every bakery thrift store was like that, they wouldn’t be thrift stores!

        All I know about Mrs. Freshley’s is that the vending machine at work has those. Every so often, the machine operations contractor will come by and replenish the supply and there are almost always some unsold Mrs. Freshley’s items nearing the expiration date. The contractor just leaves them for the employees to take if they want them since they’d otherwise just be thrown out and rarely does anyone actually take those free Mrs. Freshley’s items. That’s probably not a good sign for how those items must taste!

  1. Were there ever any Mrs Baird’s outlet stores in Houston? I grew up in Sweeny and remember making the trip to Bay City to get cheap bread and the occasional discounted fried cherry pie.

    1. Yes there were! Mrs. Baird’s Outlets came later than the others, mostly opening in the 70s and 80s, usually very close to competitors. They mostly died out around 2010, there is still one location, somewhere in DFW I believe.

  2. Cool post! There’s a Flowers Bakery outlet in Southaven that I have been to a handful of times. Looks very similar to the one shown here. Definitely an area of retail that you don’t see often or hear much about, but my mom remembers bakery outlets from her childhood.

  3. I loved the Franz outlet store (or “the bread store” as we always called it) growing up in Port Angeles! It’s still there, but it went the exact same way as you described where the big deals they used to offer on older bread went away in favor of much smaller discounts on new items, and we gradually stopped shopping there in the 2010s as you could typically get better deals on store-brand bread at Safeway (even if it wasn’t quite as good as some of Franz’s offerings!). The store itself was just like Anonymous in Houston described, even down to the free cookies they pretty much always had on offer (it was so disappointing when they started showing up less and less frequently) — it’s even smaller than the one shown here, and similarly just tucked into their local distribution warehouse.

    It’s been years since I’ve been to the bread store. Franz still has quite a few outlet stores around here, but these days I just bake all of my own bread instead of buying it from any sort of store. Their Seattle locations are still pretty popular (maybe their prices are better again these days, relatively speaking, since regular grocery stores have jacked up their prices so much over the past few years), but I’ve never been to either of them. Looking at pictures, it seems they’re just as stuck in time as they were back when I used to shop there frequently!

    1. It is a shame these bakery thrift stores aren’t focusing in on selling old bread at discount prices anymore. It is not like it is difficult to buy those gas station donuts at places like gas stations, lol. Maybe the discounts on ‘new, fresh’ products are enough to keep some shoppers coming back, but I just don’t see the point of buying fresh bread from these places unless I lived very close to it. Admittedly, when we shopped at the Flowers Thrift Store back in the 1980s, we lived quite close to it. That certainly added to the value factor.

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