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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Windmills and Pastry: A Sweet Old Family Recipe

Van de Kamp's Bakery mixed marketing moxie and culinary skills to become a pioneer in the city's breadbasket.

July 17, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Its blue windmills swirled like giant propellers over a chain of bakeries, coffee shops and a drive-in as the sweet aroma of freshly baked pastries wafted over the city. For more than three-quarters of a century, Van de Kamp's Holland Dutch Bakery fused Old World recipes with New World commerce, helping to create the neighborhood known as the city's breadbasket.

All that remains of the giant landmark in Glassell Park are its quaint two-story facade and two smaller buildings, squeezed between the Glendale Freeway and Metrolink tracks. Built in 1931 to evoke a gargantuan 16th century Dutch town house, the facade stands as a tribute to pioneers in the Southern California food industry.

"That's the area where all the bakeries were," said L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a lifelong Silver Lake resident. He remembers tagging along with his older brother to watch fresh bread roll out of the oven and off the assembly line in the 1960s.

"Next to Van de Kamp's [plant] there was also a drive-in restaurant with a big windmill, used as a meeting place by all the big guys from Franklin, John Marshall and Eagle Rock highs," LaBonge said. "They would street-race on Riverside Drive. But I only watched. I didn't race, nor did my brother."

LaBonge remembers inhaling the comforting aromas of Van de Kamp's bear claws and other sweets: "It was like an animated cartoon that lifts you off your feet and then acts as a magnet, pulling you right there."

Hailed as the "Taj Mahal of bakeries," Van de Kamp's was founded in 1915 by Theodore Van de Kamp and Lawrence L. Frank, uncles of former California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. They parlayed a $200 investment and one product -- potato chips -- into a fragrant food empire.

"They were a very good team," said Richard N. Frank, 82, son of Lawrence Frank. "My father was the creative one. My uncle was terrific with numbers and did the administrative work. My dad created the products."

He said his father, who came from a long line of sausage and sauerkraut makers in Milwaukee, came to Los Angeles in 1912 "to get away from his uncles in the family's meatpacking business."

Lawrence Frank's future bride, Henrietta "Nettie" Van de Kamp, whose family also hailed from Milwaukee, followed him west; they married in 1913.

He first got a job at a furniture store but soon went to work for his brother in the potato chip business.

Nettie's brother, Theodore, arrived for a visit a couple of years later, looking for a business opportunity. Hitting on the idea of selling the chips that Ralph Frank made, the brothers-in-law formed a partnership.

Using the Van de Kamp name, they opened their first store Jan. 6, 1915, near the corner of 2nd and Spring streets in downtown Los Angeles. Only 8 feet wide, it was designed to keep customers out. From the top half of a Dutch door, Nettie and her sister, Marion, sold chips to sidewalk customers.

Frank had reasoned that the name would be memorable and its Dutch heritage would connote cleanliness and freshness. They underlined that idea with their motto: "Made Clean, Kept Clean, Sold Clean."

By the end of the year, they had opened four more potato chip shops downtown. But a shortage of potatoes soon induced them to sell other items, including salted pretzels and S-shaped coconut macaroons.

Within two years, they opened their first coffee shop, at 5th and Spring streets, where the 12-story Alexandria Hotel annex now stands.

In 1921, Van de Kamp's set up the first of its little prefab Dutch windmills in a lot near Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue. There, they sold cakes, pies and Danishes, a list that eventually included 140 products.

"The fairy tale windmill, which turned counterclockwise by motor, was the handiwork of Harry Oliver," Richard Frank said.

Oliver, an art director for Hollywood studios and a builder of Storybook-style houses, had just completed what passersby called the Witch's House as the offices and dressing rooms for Willat Studios in Culver City. The Hansel-and-Gretel-style cottage was moved to Beverly Hills in 1934; today, it's a private residence.

Van de Kamp's windmills were designed to catch the eye of passing motorists in what was becoming a car culture. The theme bakeries continued to multiply across the Southland and along the Washington and Oregon coasts.

As a sideline, Lawrence Frank incorporated his own company -- basing the name on his nickname, Larry -- to operate restaurants and similar businesses. The centerpieces remain the Tam O'Shanter Inn on Los Feliz Boulevard, designed by Oliver in 1922 with an artfully ramshackle roof, and Lawry's the Prime Rib, which became a fixture on La Cienega Boulevard 16 years later. Richard Frank, although semi-retired, is chairman of Lawry's Restaurants Inc.

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