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School renovating Colonial Bakery


Many Des Moines residents can remember taking a school field trip to the Colonial Baking Co. plant to see how bread is made. After smelling the fresh-baked product throughout the tour, each student received a free miniature loaf to take home.

Still fronted by its distinctive neon sign that reads, “Colonial is good bread. Try it!” the colonial-style brick building at 1225 Second Ave. has been vacant since The Earthgrains Co. sold its Colonial brand and moved out nearly three years ago.

Next fall, Des Moines students will be touched by the building in a different way. As part of its $320 million district-wide school renovation project, the Des Moines Independent Community School District has purchased the structure and is now converting it into a central production kitchen to serve the district’s 63 schools.

When the $12 million renovation project is complete, the building will house the largest production kitchen in Iowa, turning out 40,000 meals a day, with the capacity to produce up to 100,000 meals daily. It will even have its own bakery, turning out fresh-made cookies, pizzas and other baked goods.

“It will be a better product for every school,” said Steve Lang, program manager for Taylor Ohde Kitchell, the Des Moines construction company that manages the school district’s construction and design programs. The project is the first of its kind for any school district in the state, he said.

Despite the district’s budget shortfall, the project is moving forward because it’s funded from an entirely separate source than its operating funds. The central kitchen and each of the school renovations will be paid for from the 1 percent local option sales tax approved by Polk County voters in 2000.

Initially, the district had planned to renovate the existing school kitchens as part of its renovation program, but began discussing the concept of a central facility in late 2000. Then, in December of that year, the former Colonial building became available.

“What attracted us to it initially was its central location,” said Duane Van Hemert, the school district’s executive director of facilities. “And we knew that it had the utility infrastructure that we needed because it had been a bakery.”

Built in 1939 as the Colonial Baking Co. plant, the building was owned by Campbell Taggart Inc., the predecessor of The Earthgrains Co. When Earthgrains purchased Metz Baking Co., the company was required by the U.S. Justice Department to divest the Colonial brand in several markets, including Des Moines.

With the renovation well under way, the building has been completely gutted inside, with new plumbing and wiring installed. A new roof has been put on, and expanded loading docks are being built. About $5 million in new commercial kitchen equipment will be installed. Offices for the food service department will be located on the second floor.

The new facility is expected to save the school district about $1 million per year in operating costs, Van Hemert said.

“We see it growing into a kitchen that might serve all schools in Polk County eventually,” Van Hemert said. “We know that there will be other food service operations interested in this.”

The kitchen will be set up as a “cook-chill” facility, meaning the food will be cooked until nearly done, then frozen in bags and sent out to the schools, where the cooking will be completed at each school’s kitchen. Currently, meals are prepared at 13 satellite kitchens across the district and transported hot to the schools.

The new system will allow the district to deliver several days’ worth of meals at one time to the schools, and spread out deliveries throughout the day. It also will require fewer food preparation employees, with a shift to more full-time staff rather than part-timers.

The district is funding the project entirely from the localoption sales tax, which will provide an estimated $320 million in revenue over a 10-year period.

The cost of the central kitchen project is being shared by each of the schools from the original amount each was budgeted.

As for the Colonial Bread sign, “it’s a city landmark,” Van Hemert said. “It stays.” The school district plans to continue lighting it during the holidays, he said.

“I told Earthgrains, ‘I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I’m not going to be the one to tear it down.'”   

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