WHEN it comes out of the oven, hot and gooey and golden brown, William Entenmann III can sink his teeth into any chocolate chip cookie and list the ingredients from its lingering taste.
It's a skill he learned from his grandfather, the first William in the family, a German immigrant who opened Entenmann's French Bakery in Brooklyn in 1898. Since then, a century of stories span the birth of a modest pastry, cake and cookie factory on Fifth Avenue that, 30 expansions later, now stretches 14 acres and serves as the base for a business now worth close to a billion dollars.
These days, though Entenmann's is no longer owned by Entenmanns, the family signature ribbon of royal blue letters that once bannered downtown Bay Shore now blankets tractor trailers nationwide and decorates millions of the see-through boxes Entenmann's invented.
This morning at 10, the tale returns to its roots, with a gala birthday celebration in downtown Bay Shore topped off with a 24-ton crumbcake and thousands of devotees who can name their favorite Entenmann's product without pause.
"I'm just thankful to the customers for doing what they did," says William III, 67, who is still responsible for quality control at the Bay Shore plant now owned by CPC International, a food conglomerate based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. "We owe it to the people who purchased our products and ate a hell of a lot more cake than I could."
Entenmann's has repeatedly returned the favor, becoming a point of pride, a vital social force and an economic boon to the Bay Shore and Brentwood communities. The family built the Great South Bay YMCA, donated the building for the Hospice of the South Shore home in Bay Shore, hired thousands of community members for the plant and gave away innumerable blue-and-white boxes of cookies and doughnuts.
"Every good thing that has happened to this community, somehow the Entenmanns have had a part in it," said Bay Shore community leader Artie Dromerhauser, who remembers the weekly race as a child from church toward the smell of baking rolls. "There could not have been any better neighbors."
For generations of local families, Entenmann's paid the bills - fathers delivering cookies, moms mixing glazes and sons boxing cakes on the line. Rosette Cunha, an immigrant from Portugal who started working for the company in 1979, met her husband on the jelly doughnut packing line. On the day she got her U.S. naturalization papers, Cunha received a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers on her doorstep from William III and his wife, Christine.
"Through the years, I've made a lot of friends here," the Brentwood resident said. "Some have retired, but we still keep in touch. It's like we're a family."
At 22, Chris Alliegro started off 20 years ago as a general helper, shoveling sugar crumbs onto the doughnut conveyor belts (a task that mechanical vacuums perform today). These days, he mixes the glaze for the doughnuts with a secret recipe he won't divulge.
Alliegro, of Bay Shore, also clearly remembers the day almost three years ago when he learned that "Mrs. E," the well-liked and respected Martha Entenmann, had died. Hats in hand, the 1,500-member staff saluted the woman who had married William Jr., her boss in the bake shop, and eventually helped build the company with their trio of sons, Robert, Charles and William III.
"She knew every driver by name - even when it got to the hundreds," said Jaime Padden, Martha's granddaughter. "She knew what sold any given week and what didn't sell, and it would filter down to my father and the bakers. If a driver would tell her they heard the crumb cake was a little flat this week, it would get back to my father. There was a direct link from my grandmother to the drivers to the customers."
As children, William and his brothers were required to work for the bakery, driving the stand-up trucks as young as 14 years old. But when their father offered to send them to college to learn a new trade, the three brothers stuck with the business, Charles going into engineering, Robert into sales and William III into production.
The bakery was a family affair, with the cousins and grandchildren all in on the action. Padden, now 42, recalls as a child watching her father ice the cupcakes, "leaving that little swirl on top." Her favorite memories are of opening the boxes for the workers on the cake line or putting cherries on top of the cakes. And she recalls skateboarding on the wheeled palettes in the store rooms with her cousins when the bakery was closed Sundays and Mondays.
After William Jr. died in 1951, the brothers and their mother made decisions together - first to sell products through grocery stores, then to open a second bakery in a Long Island retirement capital, Miami, in 1975, and finally to sell the business.
In 1978, saying the business had become too big for one family to handle, they sold Entenmann's to Warner-Lambert, the pharmaceutical company, for $233 million. In 1982, the company was sold again to General Foods for $315 million. In 1985, General Foods was acquired by Philip Morris, and Entenmann's became a part of Kraft Foods. Last year, Entenmann's and three other Kraft brands were bought by CPC International for $865 million.
Inside the factory, the physical changes have come fast and furious. In his 29 years at Entenmann's, cooking foreman Kenny Floyd has seen the change-over from jeans and army boots to starched white uniforms, from hand-closed boxes to automated assembly lines and ovens and a plant with its own lunchroom and credit union.
"If you go into any place in this area and you're wearing an Entenmann's shirt or hat, people stop and say, You work for Entenmann's? Who makes the jelly doughnuts? What's the secret to the pies?' " Floyd said.
Despite a number of brief strikes over the years, that sense of employee pride has been key, said William III.
Although Charles Entenmann, 69, has retired, Robert, 70, still works as a consultant and William III, after a three-year temporary retirement, is still the master baker, with a tasting lab at the Fifth Avenue bakery. And though some have complained that the products aren't as tasty as in the fresh-out-of-the-oven old days, the heart of the Entenmann's tradition remains intact.
"The secret is quality," Kenny Floyd said.
"Quality products," Rosette Cunha echoed.
"Right from the very get-go we knew that we had to have quality and value," William III said. "One without the other was not going to succeed."