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JSB Industries: Muffin Town

In December 1969, Jack Anderson arrived home from Vietnam to Boston, Massachusetts. Recently married and then drafted into the service, Anderson returned to the US in need of a career plan. In the summer of 1970, he opened a small sandwich shop in uptown Boston – today, that shop is gone, but what stands is a vast enterprise in bakery wholesale on the cusp of their 40th anniversary. JSB Industries is a national baking manufacturing company, and an umbrella that covers Aesop’s Bagels, Smart Choice, Sunwise, Madeline’s Gourmet Cookies, and perhaps the most famous of the family, Muffin Town.

Sandwich World, in uptown Boston, was a popular fast-food stop for sandwiches during the lunch rush, but business was quiet the rest of the day. Its founder, Jack Anderson, had previously worked for his uncle in a similar fast-food store, this time baking and selling donuts. Having acquired a taste for the industry, Anderson even worked in food service whilst he was in the military, so when he got out, it seemed like the natural path.

“It did very well during lunch hour, but we didn’t do much business in the mornings. So, one morning I went in and made a whole gang of muffins, and next thing you know, we’re selling 60 dozen muffins and 500 cups of coffee out of one store. Everything developed from there.”

It’s incredible how quickly a business can take off – sometimes, all it needs is a moment of inspiration, and the willingness to back that spark of an idea up with hard work. This is exactly what happened when Jack woke up early one morning to bake muffins, and the success snowballed. “We opened another store, and then we had to open a commissary to bake the muffins. The stores were located in very busy parts of the city, so it was difficult to get there by regular transit, so one day I decided to stay in the wholesale business, and to get out of retail and fast food. I sold all my interests in the fast food business and opened up a commissary in East Boston.”

In the beginning, Anderson’s team focused purely on wholesale muffins. It was a dramatic change reached through small, logical steps, and similar small, logical steps would see the commissary boom into a fully-fledged wholesale company. “In growing the business, our biggest obstacle was that you can only make so much in one oven, we can only do so much wrapping etc. – these sorts of road blocks. We didn’t need many sales people at that time – what we needed was the ability to fill these big orders, and we were working around the clock to do that. Then the next phase was to buy a bigger building where we could make a lot more, and then you take another step, and another.”

JSB Industry’s products are now available in supermarkets across the country, from their original muffins to a full range of baked goods. “We’re always looking into new products. Every single week at the marketing meeting, our salesmen or our customers will have brought up new product ideas that we look into.” Whilst these products have had strong success in supermarkets, 40% of JSB’s business is more specialised. The company provides baked goods for the food service industries, and in particular, for schools. “The whole reason behind the move to wholesale was to improve sales, and when I first started in my wholesale business, I got a call from a friend in New York who’s a stock broker. He said ‘Hey, I can sell this stuff in the New York school systems’. I started doing some presentations for them, and we ended up doing a lot of business with them together.”

Whilst an excellent niche in the market, this of course came with its own set of requirements: the USDA have stringent rules in place regarding the food served to school children, and these are often subject to change. “They change year after year, and you have to comply with things you never even realised you would deal with.” As well as complying with environmental and energy issues, JSB must ensure that their products for school children provide 51% wholegrain, have less than 20% sugar, and meet a whole host of other criteria to ensure that they contribute to a full recommended meal. Every time the criteria change, JSB must alter their recipes for school products, whilst maintaining supply and ensuring that they keep the same high quality of taste. As well as staying ahead of this, they must also be ready to present their up-to-date compliances at the annual
National School Foods Service Show. “We spend probably a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year just designing and preparing for the show. Every week, it’s the subject of our marketing meeting. We make sure that we’re going to be on top of every issue that’s going to be in the show that year, so we can advertise it and show our foods to the directors and nutritionists who attend.”

When it can seem like a constant game of catch up, how does Anderson’s team stay ahead of the school foods race? “A big thing in schools now is that you need to be allergen free, so all of our plants are completely nut-free. Tree nuts, ground nuts – we have completely nut-free facilities.” This certification gives JSB an added appeal to schools, who are looking to protect themselves from potential allergen incidents within their student populations. However, going nut-free means a company cannot provide a classic American childhood staple – peanut butter. Or so you would think.

“We bought a little company up in South Dakota that sold Uncrustable Sandwiches.” For non-US citizens who have never seen an ‘Uncrustable Sandwich’, they are similar in design to a circular Cornish pasty or a giant mince pie, but the casing is instead made of bread. The round, stamped sandwiches cut out the crusts to produce an instant meal to please every child. Famously, Smucker’s produce them filled with peanut butter; to cut out the issue of allergens, Anderson found a South Dakota inspired replacement – sunbutter. “Sunbutter is made out of sunflower seeds instead of peanuts. I love peanut butter, but when you put them together, you can’t taste the difference.” Combined with their 51% wholegrain bread, these uncrustable sunbutter sandwiches are not only a safer alternative, but provide the health benefits of sunflower seeds and meet the USDA’s requirements for young diets. As far as Anderson knows, these sandwiches make them unique amongst their competitors. “We’re exclusive – I don’t think anybody else uses sunbutter. They use soybutter, which is nowhere near as dangerous as nuts, but soy is still an allergen.”

Investing in this claim to fame, JSB bought the South Dakotan company and moved it down to Massachusetts, spending $8 million on automating the company’s operations. 80% of the country’s sunflower seeds are grown in the Dakotas, owned by one company. Corning the niche, JSB has formed a close working relationship with the company, who manufacture the sunbutter for them in 500-pound pales.

Founded in 1978, JSB Industries and Muffin Town are fast approaching their 40-year anniversary, with Jack at the helm. He’s seen his business grow from a small sandwich shop to a $50-million-dollar company and growing, with two fully automated 100,000 sq. foot facilities and more room to expand. Building success from humble beginnings, fresh out of the artillery service, you could say that Jack has achieved the American Dream. How much further does he plan to take it? “This is a family business. I have three children, all boys – they all went to college, and were going to become doctors and lawyers, but now they all work in my business. They all have their families, they all have two children each, they love what they do, and they wouldn’t do anything else. At this point, they pretty much run it themselves.” The idyllic American Dream indeed! From creating something to support his family, Anderson has left a legacy for his children to build upon. Predicted plans for the company include the installation of more auto-bake lines in one of their existing facilities, before potentially branching out to more locations, but at this stage, Anderson is happy to leave questions of the future in the hands of his sons. “I get constant offers to sell out etc, but I would never do that. They’re going to take it to another level.”

Building something that will last is no easy feat, but Anderson and his team have done just that. Delighting school children and their wider customers with healthy and delicious goods, it is only right that Anderson feel proud of what has been achieved. Whilst he’s starting to look forward to stepping back, we asked what he felt the key had been to getting here in the first place. “I like to think we care about every customer we have. Big or small, they’re treated the same. We have a whole staff of quality control, a whole staff of safety people, a whole staff of professional bakers, and we stay on top of all the innovations and technologies that come down.” Strong relationships, and pride in their work – it is the advice given time and again. However, in JSB, this work ethic has a genuine root in the company’s past, filtering down from the top, having started with a man waking up early to bake a batch of muffins.

“I was a workaholic when I was younger. I’d get up early and go to work no matter what. In the service, I was a little older than most kids. Most joined at 17, but I was 20 when I went over there, and a lot of the kids would look up to you because of that. So, I always took on missions over there and did what we had to do to make life simpler and easier.”

Whether or not he’d admit it, Jack is a natural leader, and like all truly good leaders, he started on the ground, and has led by example. “I’m a modest guy. I don’t like to brag about things. I think we’ve done a pretty good job over the years, and I attribute it all to hard work. Get up a couple of hours ahead of everybody else every day. If I had to tell somebody else how to grow a business, that’s what I would tell them.”