Family-run G.H. Leidenheimer (pronounced LYE-den-high-mer) Baking Company has been the bread of choice for New Orleans restaurants, from casual to fine dining, for 125 years. The company was founded in 1896 by George Leidenheimer, an immigrant from Deidesheim, Germany, who settled in New Orleans. Initially, he started baking the heavy, dense dark breads native to his homeland, but he found more success making a style of French bread that was better suited for New Orleans’ Creole cuisine. Today, Leidenheimer is the city’s largest bread producer with national distribution and legions of fans.
Robert J. Whann IV, known as Sandy, and his sister Katherine Whann, are descendants of George Leidenheimer’s only daughter, Josephine, whose husband, Robert J. Whann Jr., took over the company with his brother, Richard. Sandy Whann, who joined the family business in 1986, explained Leidenheimer’s traditional process for making bread and its different styles.
“We start with the best ingredients- flour, yeast, water, and a little salt and sugar- and let time and temperature do their work through natural fermentation. All our po-boy loaves are hand-stretched. Our bakery workers know by touch when the dough is right, from how much water to add to how long to stretch it to achieve that light consistency. They also have to take New Orleans’ weather into consideration since the dough is sensitive to atmospheric conditions such as humidity and temperature. For French bread, which is inherently light, on a day with 100 percent humidity, it acts like a sponge. We have to bake the bread more to keep its texture. On colder days, we need to bake the bread less,” Whann said.
Other than replacing lard with small amounts of soybean oil in the 1960s, the company has stayed true to both its recipe and its suppliers like Ardent Mills outside Baton Rouge, which has been milling flour for Leidenheimer Baking Company for 70 years using high-gluten spring wheat sourced from the Dakotas.
Leidenheimer’s produces three signature styles of bread:
The oblong pistolet ranges from six to 12 inches in length. It is usually served warm wrapped in a white napkin with a side dish of butter at fine dining restaurants like Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, and Brigtsen’s. Customers usually ask for seconds.
“I can always tell locals from the visitors when our pistolet is brought to the table,” Whann said. “Visitors reach for a fork and knife, but locals will just grab the bread and tear it apart with their hands to share with their table companions.” Savvy restaurateurs know to provide their servers with a crumb catcher to clear the tables.
The po-boy is a 32-inch-long loaf used to make the sandwich called the po-boy. The bread defines this sandwich created in 1929 during a citywide strike among local streetcar workers. Brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, owners of Martin Brothers Restaurant in the French Quarter, were former streetcar conductors who sympathized with the strikers and offered them free loaves of French bread stuffed with roast beef bits and pieces, gravy, and potatoes for nourishment. When a worker came into the restaurant, a brother would call out, “Here comes another poor boy!” and hand out a sandwich.
“Back then, the bread was a traditional French baguette with tapered ends. The person who received the middle portion of the sandwich made out like a bandit, but those with the ends were not as fortunate. The Martin Brothers asked local baker, John Gendusa, to make a 32-inch loaf that could be cut into equal-size sandwiches. This way, no one would be stuck with the ends,” Whann said.
The name stuck, and so did the sandwich, which is sold throughout the city. Most New Orleanians call it by the shortened “po-boy.” Despite many traditional and modern renditions of this nearly century-old sandwich, it’s still all about the bread.
“The most important part of the po-boy is the bread. Leidenheimer bread has a crispy crust and is light and airy inside. It’s not bready or doughy like a hoagie or submarine. If you don’t have the right bread, it’s just not a po-boy,” said Joanne Domilise, one of the family members who run Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar (est. 1918) on Annunciation Street in the city’s uptown neighborhood.
“Leidenheimer is the only bread in town with that crackly crust. It’s both an art and a science to make it with such consistency. We lightly toast our bread to bring out that crunch even more,” said Justin Kennedy, general manager, and head chef at Parkway Bakery and Tavern in Mid-City, which serves around 2000 po-boys daily.
The company’s third signature style is the muffuletta, a 10-inch round, seeded bread used to make a sandwich by the same name. Created in 1906 by Salvatore Lupo, owner of Central Grocery in the French Quarter, the muffuletta is filled with salami, ham, provolone cheese, marinated olives, and giardiniera. Back then, it was popular with the Italian immigrants who worked nearby at the dockyards. Today, fans line up at Central Grocery to buy a whole or half original muffuletta and can also order online to have their favorite sandwiched shipped.
No Cutting Corners and No Chasing Trends
Leidenheimer sticks to what it does best; you won’t see a gluten-free version of their breads. “We produce traditional New Orleans French bread, and we are blessed that we are kept busy doing it. When we are approached about doing something new, we have to consider it very carefully. We are not going to jump on the bandwagon and bend to trends,” said Whann.
That reliable consistency, along with the lightness and crisp crust, are what makes Leidenheimer bread – as the company slogan states- “good to the last crumb.”