“From White House to Wheat Bread (et al)”

Regarding the late ’70s food chain The Toast Office might lead to becoming hungry for an era of less heated politics. Or at least a warm slice of whole wheat. Before Stark’s, well before Starbucks, but well into the age of McDonalds, the Toast Office offered a unique snacking experience. Yes, toast. Toast not merely made from white bread. They offered toast from breads from around the world, and spreads of all varieties: jams, jellies, butter, but no margarine. For even more variety, you could name your favorite breed of cow and select from several butters made from each. It was a welcoming and enticing environment with the aromatic pleasure of freshly baked bread and crisping slices. Ads billed Toast Office shops as “America’s morning kitchen.” And the first such shop had all of the warmth, mouth watering scents and satiating flavors of such a place. All that, and the smiling face of Gerald R. Ford in an apron behind the counter.

Many were stunned to see the man who was once the most powerful person man in the world now holding a bread knife and taking their order. After losing the close election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter, Mr. Ford was finally indulging a long held desire to bake, and evidently to slice and spread. After the initial shock, customers enjoyed taking a hot slice from a man who once knew secrets no civilian could guess. Mr. Ford was a genial, pleasant proprietor. The calm, assured persona that led the nation after the nightmare of Watergate easily led customers through the choice of breads, spreads, and at times even brought them coffee. He was also one of the few people in history not only to serve as US Vice President and President without being elected, but also make the paper and mesh hat worn in many food franchises look good.

Like customers, Toast Office employees quickly learned to look passed the initial awkwardness. They hustled by the man who once could launch nuclear missiles to get freshly popped up slices and fill a much smaller type of order. Employees were playfully dubbed Secretaries of Spreads or Cabinet Officers owing to the historical kitchen reference for national Cabinets. (Francis Bacon having used the phrase “cabinet council” disparagingly as far back as 1605 in one of his many Essays.) Many wondered if the chain only hired Republicans. Store manager Len Girisanti pointed out there was no line on the employment application for ‘political affiliation’. Still, some claimed they overheard Ford say he didn’t like butter from New York State. Too bitter. Nor was peanut butter anywhere on site. Although in truth, it can clump and tear bread even when warm and crisp.

The Toast Office stayed mostly an East Coast franchise. Only a few opened as far West as California. The stores suffered a brief scandal when people spotted a rat in one shop after hours. DJs at a local radio station quickly dubbed the offending rat “G. Rodent Liddy.” The owners called an exterminator. Public Health officers certified the store in question as clean, safe, and free of any further rodents, retaped locks or wiretaps. Enduring both a health hazard and unfortunate link to Watergate, Ford’s enterprise marched on. Much to the surprise of detractors (who probably used a lot of margarine), The Toast Office became a modest success. They still pointed out the ex-President had a captive market in his Secret Service detail. Nevertheless, respectable sales were an achievement in the highly competitive food franchise market even then.

After only a few years, Ford left his job as CEO and occasional counter attendant at the Toast Office and sold the small but robust food chain. He considered a campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980 but chose not to run. Ronald Reagan considered him for Vice Presidential running mate the same year. Reagan ultimately went with George H.W. Bush. Ford went on to a life of service outside elected and non-elected public office having also met his goal to become a baker, if only for a short time. In interviews, Ford was asked of Nixon, Carter, Watergate, the Supreme Court, where the aliens were buried, but hardly ever about his interesting career choice after leaving the White House. However, it may be time for the US to reconsider toast, especially in this day of ubiquitous coffee shops, 20-dollars hamburgers, intractable political polarization, and economic and social turmoil. Toast is one food eaten every morning across the globe and certainly all across America. Its near universal presence at breakfast makes it a possible means to unite people across economic tiers, choice of spread or political parties. All varieties of bread go in one slice at a time. Although how people like their eggs‑‑if they like eggs at all‑‑can be a heated issue. Scrambled? Perhaps, sunny side up?

BSL