Natural Ovens Bakery: biochemist’s creation

The bakery tour lasts only 15 minutes, but it is free and about more than how to make bread in bulk quantities. Inside the small outlet store, it’s a toss-up about whether there are more kinds of food to buy, or books about nutrition and diet.

It has long been the goal of Paul Stitt, a biochemist who founded Natural Ovens Bakery in Manitowoc, to improve the average American’s diet. He began this business in 1976, after being fired from his second job with a food industry giant because he rebelled against what he considered unethical company practices.

“People in America are eating, on the average, seven pounds of food per day when they only need to eat about two pounds,” he told me in 1983, while I was working for REFEREE, a trade magazine for sports officials. “If you eat foods of low quality, you’re hooked and you’ll eat and eat and eat.”

“Low quality” includes junk food and chemically processed food. Paul contends that overeating is a matter of additives as well as consumer willpower. An all-natural food diet would cut the average grocery bill by 40 percent, he said, when we first met, and then he proceeded to feed about 50 of us a lunch that totaled no more than $20 in cost. In the simple buffet were fruits, vegetables and Natural Ovens’ sugar-free cookies and breads.

The bakery products are denser than average, so the tendency is to eat less of them before feeling filled. Natural ingredients include untreated and unbleached wheat. No preservatives are added.

Today Natural Ovens produces 30,000 to 40,000 loaves or packages of products daily, five days per week, and one of the job benefits for the bakery’s 200 employees is a free lunch on workdays. In the employee cafeteria is a buffet table with salad, fruit and sandwich fixings. Some of the breads are still warm, fresh from the production line, and workers also can take home bakery products for free.

“We try to teach our employees to be responsible for their health care,” says Paul, who also has pushed for fresh, nutritional foods to be a part of school meal programs. What began as a one-day experiment at Appleton’s Central Alternative High School now involves 15,000 students in 25 schools.

The result? “Grades are up, truancy is no longer a problem, arguments are rare, and teachers are able to spend their time teaching.”

The initiative was based on much more than a hunch. Paul’s wife, Barbara Reed, is a former probation officer whose longtime research has linked criminal behavior to poor dieting. She is very much a part of the Natural Ovens’ mission and projects.

On the 55-acre grounds of the business is a 1-mile jogging trail, which Paul says travelers also are welcome to use. They also can park a camping trailer here overnight and can plug into water and electricity hook-ups that are on the grounds.

“He really pushes us and sees things out in the future that we can’t see yet,” an employee says, in a video about Natural Ovens.

When Paul began his work in 1976, he had no business plan, mentor or recipe for bread. “But bread is a universally loved food,” he explains. “It was the ideal food to fortify and reach the most people.”

Profits from operating a health food store in Manitowoc made it possible for him to buy a bakery that was going out of business, and the owners taught him how to make whole-grain bread.

“I missed out on the organic movement,” Paul says, “but I’m not convinced that organic foods are any more nutritious” than products made with all-natural ingredients. “It’s as much perception as anything.”

This month, he began sales of a new product line: chocolate drops fortified with Vitamin D. The Brazilian dark chocolate comes in four varieties: with coconut, walnuts, peanuts or almonds. A 6-ounce tub goes for $6.95.

One disk, slightly larger in circumference than a quarter, contains as much Vitamin D as 12 glasses of milk and as much Vitamin C as 10 glasses of orange juice.

Unlike typical chocolate candy, Paul contends the average consumer will be satisfied after eating one or two. What makes the difference? Natural ingredients and trade secrets, he says.

Paul considers Vitamin D deficiency to be the world’s top health problem. One of his challenges, with the new product line, is how to market it and where to get it placed in stores. Does it go in the candy aisle, or with other dietary supplements? In the pharmacy, grocery or health food store?

For more: www.naturalovens.com, 800-558-3535. Natural Ovens Bakery and its outlet store are at 4300 Hwy. CR, Manitowoc. Paul most likely will be found at 1926 S. Ninth St., Manitowoc, where the new line of chocolates is produced. Bakery products are for sale in stores and online.

Tours of Natural Ovens begin at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The schedule may change during holiday weeks. Make a reservation for groups of 10 or larger. School tours are commonplace.

The product line – which is certified kosher – includes breads, bagels, rolls, cookies, granola bars, cereals, pancake mix and a flax supplement.

Flax? Paul, whose license plate says “FLAXMAN,” patented the use of flax in human foods in 1985, “but it never amounted to anything.” Why? “You can file a patent for $10,000, but it takes $5 million to defend it.”

He shrugs. Life, for him and Barbara, has not been about making a lot of money.

“My problem is having too many ideas,” he says. “I get ahead of the rest of the world.”