UPDATE: There’s been a development since this column was published — see below.
English muffins fly under the radar. I’m not sure why. Maybe because they are denizens of the morning, generally, among the first foodstuffs we confront in that awkward hour between sleep and work. Maybe because English muffins are humble, stolid, reliable.
And therefore unsung. Chicagoans can prattle on about pizza, harangue endlessly over hot dogs, even occasionally acknowledge Chicago is, or was, the center of the candy universe, turning out everything from Baby Ruth bars to Lemonheads.
But English muffins are denied their due.
I’ve just searched the Sun-Times back to 1948, the Tribune and Daily News even further, and found only a handful of stories mentioning that George Bay set to baking his grandmother’s English muffin recipe here in 1933, delivering his circular delights in paper bags to Loop hotels and restaurants.
Which bugs me since, most mornings — say five out of every seven — start with a toasted Bays English muffin, preferably Cinnamon Raisin, and a whole grapefruit, peeled and sectioned, using bites of the former as a reward for getting down segments the latter. It’s not that I don’t like grapefruit, I do, exceedingly. But next to an English muffin ... well, that’s like comparing a carrot with a brownie.
You would think the world of English muffins is fairly static, and it is. But about six months ago, there was an earthquake: Bays introduced resealable packaging, with a big window that opens and closes, like Oreo packages. Previously opening an orange-and-white package of Bays required both ingenuity and effort. The packages were not bread bags, which could be opened and closed with a twist tie, but cellophane — perhaps a hold-over to when Bays introduced cellophane-windowed boxes in 1938. Try tearing one open and you’d end up ripping a gash halfway across the package, exposing your delicate muffins to the cruel refrigerator air. A rend I’ve repaired with Scotch tape. Trying to avoid this, I took to carefully cutting the end off with scissors, then covering the opening with a baggie, using that as a cap for the next three muffins, then transferring the last two muffins into the baggie.
Bays is proud of this new packaging. “NOW RESEALABLE” a sticker proclaims. A big improvement, and I couldn’t help but imagine, as the mornings ran on, the unheralded moment of epiphany: some humble employee, deep within the vast Bays English Muffin operation, stepping into the path of a higher up. “M...M...Mr. Bay, I’m sorry, I can hold my silence no longer. These cellophane packages are ... a nuisance. Here, I’ve been working on this improved packaging system, in my spare time of course ...”
Unheralded ... unless I could find them.
“It started with our consumers,” said Jill Matthews, director of marketing, innovation and strategy for Bays, no longer family-owned but since 2017 a division of Grupo Bimbo. “We are so grateful to have a very loyal base of longtime Bays fans. They’ve been in love with our Bays English muffins for years, but not our packaging. This was a frequent consumer complaint, that once they opened Bays they had to repackage Bays in another container.”
Alas, she did not serve up an individual hero to enjoy the limelight.
“The Bays team mobilized to stop this pain point,” she said. “We wanted to find the right options. How big should the reseal be? We wanted people to easily get their muffins out of the package. The reseal had to work properly. It really was a process, to find the right solution.”
Adding another facet to the COVID tragedy, Bays fans would have had their new packaging sooner but for the pandemic.
“The launch was delayed due to COVID,” Matthews said. “Our focus was on making sure we had enough product and materials.”
And the response?
“We’ve been blown away,” she said. “We’ve received over 1,200 calls and contacts, to thank us, to compliment Bays for making the change.”
Some will read a column on English muffin packaging and feel that I’ve evaded my responsibility as a hard news reporter. That just isn’t true. Just as English muffins are not baked, but grilled on griddles, so I grilled Matthews for the latest development in English muffins. She eventually broke down and confessed there is a new Bays variety, available only in Chicago and the Upper Midwest: brioche. In the tradition of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Tim Novak, I raced to Jewel and picked up a package.
Subtly sweet. My wife pronounced it “yummy.” Though I must mention a dark cloud, lest I be accused of writing a puff piece: the Jewel on Willow Road stocked only Brioche, Sourdough and Original — no Cinnamon Raisin, perhaps nudged out by the newcomer. That would be tragic and a reminder that, in the grocery game, it’s all about shelf space.
We’ll save that for another day — I really should have done this as a weeklong series. I haven’t even mentioned that Bays provided the backbone of the Egg McMuffin for the first dozen years of its existence, until behemoth McDonald’s decided they weren’t uniform enough. Another time.
Let’s give the last word to Matthews.
“The packaging did cost more,” she said. “We felt it was needed to bring our packaging up to standards. It’s about making sure our consumers are happy with the full Bays English Muffin experience.”
More good news from Muffinland: a clarification
Readers take English muffins seriously: I learned this by the avalanche of reaction to this column below. But one note demands immediate posting, as I was speculating idly — and incorrectly — about a situation that a particularly reader is vastly familiar with and eager to educate the city about.
”I am the Business Manager/Broker rep for Bays Muffins in Chicago,” writes Mike Puttrich, Acosta Jewel-Osco team leader. “I need to correct your comments in today’s article about Cinnamon Raisin muffins being nudged out of Jewel and can no longer be found.
“The Cinnamon Raisin muffin was caught up during the Pandemic purchasing issues of the past year and was a suspended item from Bays for a very short time.
”Jewel at the time inadvertently set this item up to be suspended short term but it was discontinued solely in error. Then the Jewel buyer retired and the launch of the new Brioche Muffin kicked in.
”The Cinnamon Raisin item is being addressed for re-instatement to Jewel as fast as their process allows, the stores can get this product upon request to the Dairy manager or Store manager, we’ve done this often since this issue arose.
”The consumer demand for the Cinnamon Raisin is solid. This item was not nudged out for the new Bay’s Brioche, it was just an oops! A correction is being worked on and Jewel will be back to stocking the entire Bays Muffin family of items soon.”
There you have it. More good muffin news. My apologies to Mike Puttrich and to Jewel; English muffins might be delightfully airy, but their availability should never be treated lightly.