ATLANTIC CITY — People in Atlantic City have long wondered if Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III had a secret plan to get his hands into the seaside resort’s assets, and here it is, at last, revealed:
Not just any bread, but Formica bread, one of Atlantic City’s most sacred brands, an entire mythology baked into a hugely indented sub roll. A roll whose simple taste and chewy texture has long been traced to the quality of the water — “the softest, cleanest anywhere,” Frank Formica has bragged — pumped to the historic Ducktown bakery. It is the bread used by such beloved Shore brands as the White House Sub Shop and Sack O’ Subs.
Earlier this month, Norcross announced his family was purchasing a majority share of Formica’s, founded in 1919, and renaming it the Formica Freitag Bakery, in honor of Norcross’ paternal great-grandfather August Freitag, who owned a small German bakery at 247 Kaighn Ave. in Camden in 1890.
It was an arguably stunning development, not least because the South Jersey Democratic boss and insurance magnate, who now votes in Florida, where he owns a home in Palm Beach and is a member of Mar-A-Lago, did the deal with Frank Formica, a prominent Republican and former Atlantic County freeholder. They both then gave the early morning exclusive to Harry Hurley, a talk-show host on local conservative radio.
Politics makes strange ... bread fellows, you could say. The Norcross family’s last big purchase was of a copy of the also-iconic Declaration of Independence, for $4 million, in 2021.
The bakery deal left both ends of the political spectrum puzzled.
“Now, since Norcross was unsuccessful in getting his claws in Atlantic City by changing the type of government to one he could control, & American Water was defeated, he’s going into the bakery business?” wrote local Democratic progressive activist Helen Duda on Twitter. “I am baffled! What’s up with that?”
“Weird,” summed up Matt Rooney, a conservative Republican activist and founder of the Save Jersey website.
The partners of the new Formica Freitag Bakery say the deal will facilitate a “state-of-the-art” expansion that will allow the bread to be distributed nationally, retaining “the same texture and crunch as it does fresh from the Formica ovens on Arctic Avenue.”
It makes perfect sense to both the Formica partners and the Norcross family, says Frank Formica (pronounced For-MEE-ca), who is no longer an elected official and says a 2019 Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing against the company has been discharged, and had no bearing on the current deal.
The N.J. Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) placed liens of more than $2 million against the company in 2019 in an attempt to recoup loans, according to federal bankruptcy court documents, but the case was discharged with “a significant portion” of the company’s $675,416 remaining assets designated as uncollectible.
The trustee in the case filed a notice of abandonment, typically done when there is insignificant value remaining for creditors.
By then, Frank Formica had already turned over Formica’s Bakery operations to partner Pat McKenna, who, as already head of the Taste of Italy brand, is poised to take the Formica (Freitag) brand national, launched by the Norcross family’s “multimillion investment.”
Formica says McKenna is already distributing a line of frozen Taste of Italy appetizers — arancini, pazotti, spaghetti bites, and egg rolls — nationally. “He already has the trains going to the tracks,” Formica said in an interview this week, the only principal in the deal who would come to the phone. “We have to fit in the bread.”
Of the Norcross involvement, Formica says, “We’ve had a relationship through opposite sides of the equator.” He said he expected both George Norcross and son Alex to be very involved in the operation. The release notes that the original Norcross patriarch, George E. Norcross, worked at his father-in-law’s bakery, which boasted that its goods were “As Near Home-Made as Bakers Can Make.”
“We started talking after I was unelected,” he said. “It was actually George’s idea. He came and said I’d love to do this. George is keenly aware of the quality of Atlantic City bread. He doesn’t want it to change.
“We’re all kindred spirits ... of flour,” he said.
The partnership between McKenna and Norcross will still keep Formica as a consultant to the Italian bakery, which at its peak served over 280 local businesses. It still sells bread, including multigrain loaves, plus espresso, cannoli, and tomato pie (don’t sleep on the tomato pie) from the shop at 2310 Arctic Ave.
Formica says he’s still into the business “up to my elbows.” He certainly is keeper of all the memories, like how in 1931, with everyone hit by the Depression and women could not afford extra coal to bake their own bread in their ovens, the Formicas let them bake their homemade dough in the family’s commercial ovens for “a penny a loaf.”
“It’s a great opportunity to extend the 102-year legacy of my family’s business into the future,” Formica said
He said that while other bakeries in town sell par-baked bread that can be shipped nationally, he and McKenna have perfected a way to distribute Formica bread “fully baked and frozen.”
“The format has never been used,” he said.
The Norcross family investment would allow an expansion of the business, he said, possibly into the vacant former North Tennessee Avenue home of the Ginsburg bakery, a century-old Jewish bakery known for its challahs and rye bread, owned for the last 40 years by the Mulloy family.
Ginsburg merged with another company in 2015 and left Atlantic City for Camden County, assisted by ... a $2 million loan from the NJEDA.
Norcross declined through a spokesman to be interviewed. In a prepared statement, Norcross said, “For generations, my family and almost every person who has visited the Shore have eaten Formica’s Italian breads ― in restaurants and hoagie shops, on the beach, and walking down the boardwalk. We are excited to continue on its proud heritage ... and build on it for the next hundred years.”
McKenna said in the release he hoped to bring the “World Famous Atlantic City Bread” to “every corner of the country.”
Atlantic City is, in fact, filled with iconic bakeries, including Mento’s on Ventnor Avenue, known for its strawberry shortcake and German chocolate cake, not to mention its tres leches cakes, and the Panaderia Rodriguez Mexican bakery over on Kentucky Avenue.
Meanwhile, over at rival bread bakery Rando’s, another iconic Ducktown bakery located just around the corner on Mississippi Avenue, and where those par-baked loaves have been available for shipping (with instructions to finish by baking at 425 for 10 minutes), the bakers were throwing some shade.
“We are happy to announce that we are currently going into our 14th year bringing Atlantic City bread across the country,” the company reminded people on Facebook a few days after the Formica announcement.