Dick Lehman, during his years as a salesman for Hostess, in the ‘60s. photo courtesy of Richard Carl Lehman
 

Dick Lehman, during his years as a salesman for Hostess, in the ‘60s. photo courtesy of Richard Carl Lehman

 

In the ‘60s, there were five grocery stores in Madison Park. The business district was lined with delivery trucks of all kinds. 

Madison Park Veterinary Hospital used to be Johnson’s Grocery. John, Millie and the kids lived above the store. Where the vacant Tully’s stands now was Ken Frazier’s Lake Shore Deli. On the corner where Bert’s Red Apple is now was an empty lot that served as an ice skating rink in winter months. 

Between 42nd and 43rd avenues was a Safeway store — it was small and later became Madison Park Grocery. On the corner where McGilvra’s is now was East Village Foods owned by Bob and Lee Angel. The Red Apple was an IGA store and used to be where Bing’s is now. 

While tending bar at The Attic, I once overheard a conversation between two salesmen about their salary and commission working for Hostess, so I left to join them.

 

The trade-offs

Fifty years ago, Hostess employed hundreds in the sales field. Many of the older drivers had bought real estate during the Depression and were able to live on commission alone. 

Management required a nine-hour day with a one-hour lunch, and if you worked any overtime, it would be your last day. To bridge all of this we loaded our trucks and did the product ordering on our own time to keep both management and the union happy. 

The chain stores and the mom-and-pops totaled more than 850, so ordering for a nearly consistent public allowed for less spoilage (Hostess had a four-day code). 

One of the routes downtown included mom-and-pop stores on just about every block. There were truck-loading zones everywhere, and double parking was allowed. 

My 14 routes took me from Auburn south and north to Innis Arden. The south routes from Renton to Puyallup were known as the “bean fields” as it was nothing but countryside. Busloads of pickers arrived in the mornings, and along the highway, empty wine bottles were strewn (no booze was allowed on-site).

There was harmony in the fact that the chains could only be open six days a week until 6 p.m. (closed Sundays), allowing mom-and-pops to make an income. They stayed open late and on Sundays, attracting as much of the buying public as possible. Delightful smells wafting from the kitchen welcomed patrons.

The good money to be made as a bakery driver/salesman made the 30 to 50 stops a day tolerable. Transactions were made with cash or check only (there was limited charging at the chain stores), so we carried a lot of money and holdups happened. 

Hold ups were one thing, but only having Wednesdays and Sundays off was a real bummer. Who wants to go out Tuesday night? Many a time, I would leave an after-hour’s club and drive to the bakery, where I exchanged the taste of good whiskey for a Hostess Berry Pie and black coffee. 

In spite of it all, I banked some major dough. With the “harmony” between the large stores and the mom-and-pops, product could be controlled and profit for all could be made.

 

Competition

All the while there was the feeling that working as hard as we did running into stores, making use of every minute to cover an already-too-big route that something had to give. And it did! It was rumored that cheap bread was coming in from Canada. Even the gas stations sold it: Five loaves for a buck! This really impacted the marketplace. Soon, the chains got into the act, ordering bread by the flats. 

Other products were brought into the new system, and it started to hurt the small stores that were unable to stockpile large amounts. 

Then a chain opened on Sunday — the biggest day of the week! Others followed, and adding insult to injury, the 24-hour convenience store was introduced. Mom-and-pops — with their life savings spent and little chance to sell — closed, and those who remained didn’t like bakery salesmen because we catered to the big guys. 

Ordering became impossible; holdups increased. I used to yell before walking to the rear of a store, “Can I serve you now, or are you being robbed?” It wasn’t that funny, really. 

At one stop, I didn’t say it and found myself, for the third time, joining others up front with a gun by my head. I said the wrong thing and was struck, but at least it kept us from being locked in the freezer. That was a particularly long day, with a fat eye and many stops still remaining! 

 

Saying goodbye

Yes, I was a Twinkie salesman, and I sold a lot of Twinkies. I quit Hostess after seven years. 

During those final days, I said goodbye, with a lump in my throat, to the store owners and employees I’d befriended, as well as the driver salesmen I worked with.

Hostess will reinvent itself in bankruptcy. The 18,000-plus newly unemployed will jockey for jobs elsewhere — good luck to all.

 

RICHARD CARL LEHMAN is a longtime Madison Park resident. To comment on this story, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.