Historic Western PA bakery Byrnes & Kiefer fires workers by the dozen over holidays

Commercial bakery closes operations in Butler and Mercer County, ending 120 years of operations in Western PA.

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Byrnes & Kiefer headquarters in December 2022. Photo by Brian Conway.

Four days after Christmas, 2022, workers at Byrnes & Kiefer commercial bakery and warehouse in Callery, Butler County, cleaned and counted inventory to prepare for a major inspection.

Around 1pm, management bought pizza, from Milano’s down the street.

By 2pm, almost everyone was fired.

“It was a shock,” said one of the dismissed employees, who had worked there for about two and half years in a variety of roles. “A lot of people were crying. My friend, his eyes were red. He was bawling.”

“A lot of people here live paycheck to paycheck.”

Founded in 1902, in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, Byrnes & Kiefer provided commercial baking products to clients like Eat’n Park and Giant Eagle. And until late 2021, Byrnes & Kiefer also manufactured Reymers’ Lemon Blennd, an orange-lemon flavored drink that was popular in Pittsburgh for over a century.

The Independent spoke with over a half-dozen former workers of Byrnes & Kiefer’s Callery headquarters. Workers were granted anonymity due to concerns that critical comments about a former workplace could prejudice them in the eyes of future employers as they search, many of them urgently, for a new job. 

“I just bought a car, probably a month after I started there,” said another former employee, who was only recently hired full-time after months as a temp worker. 

“I kept asking every week, ‘How am I doing? Can I improve?’ I need to have job security. They kept telling me I’m doing good: ‘Don’t worry, everything is fine.’ I don’t know how I’m going to make my car payments.”

Workers present the day of the layoffs delivered the news to those who weren’t, meaning some employees heard they had been laid off secondhand, and in at least one case, thirdhand.

“Byrnes & Kiefer Company is closing its Callery and Hermitage facilities but will continue to operate its other businesses located in California and North Carolina,” confirmed Tom Meinert of Meinert/Mashek Communications on behalf of Byrnes & Kiefer, in a statement emailed Wednesday, Jan. 4.

“We are grateful for our employees’ efforts and remain committed to our company’s tradition of delivering the highest quality bakery supplies and goods,” he said.

Meinert declined to respond to follow-up questions or provide the total number of employees terminated.

In addition to their Callery headquarters and their Hermitage subsidiary, Charlie’s Specialties, Byrnes & Kiefer also owns Fullerton, CA’s Chefmaster and High Point, NC’s Carolina Cookie Co.

Approximately 50 people worked at Byrnes & Kiefer’s Hermitage location, according to a September 2021 news article from WFMJ

On Wednesday, Jan. 4, The Sharon Herald reported on the Hermitage closure, but did not report the number of workers laid off. The Herald reported that the lights at the Charlie’s Specialties plant were turned off when they visited Wednesday, and that no one answered the doorbell.

According to three firsthand accounts from workers in three separate departments who were present during the mass layoff in Callery, operations manager Gary Zacherl spoke to about 25 staff members for roughly 10 minutes last Thursday, telling workers that operations were ending and that unless he had already spoken with them privately, they were to leave and not return. (Several workers stated a skeleton crew of roughly six remain to wind down operations.)

Those in attendance said that Zacherl declared the company would not dispute any worker’s unemployment claims. Several stated that Zacherl blamed the layoffs at least in part on employees, saying their unreliability caused order fulfillment issues, a sentiment he had expressed to staff before.

Almost all of the workers who spoke for this article complained of high worker turnover. One former manager noted that it was difficult to get to Callery without a car, and that wages for similar jobs in nearby Cranberry Township typically paid better than what Byrnes & Kiefer offered. 

“If you worked here for a year, you were in the top 10%,” said the employee of two and a half years.

Many workers spoke of poor working conditions and frustration with management. Four workers who spoke with the Independent expressed a belief that management did not adequately respond to an incident over the summer in which a worker allegedly drank alcohol during their lunch break and later drove a forklift into scaffolding that held up stacks of granulated sugar in the warehouse. (The Independent was shown a photo of the damage to scaffolding allegedly caused by the described incident.)

The laid off employees have kept in touch with each other over social media to commiserate and share concerns. Some former employees are concerned that delays with Byrnes & Kiefer’s payroll department over the long New Year’s weekend could delay their unemployment benefits. Others worry the company won’t pay out for banked paid time off accrued in years prior.

Many of the employees contacted for this article believed that the decision to close had been in the works for some time, making the abrupt layoffs even more upsetting. They point to a warehouse owned by Byrnes & Kiefer at 2600 Freedland Rd in Hermitage, adjacent to Charlie’s Specialties, which was listed for sale roughly 3 months ago.

Aaron G. Byrnes of Newport Beach, CA is listed as President and CEO of Byrnes & Kiefer’s California subsidiary, Chefmaster. Byrnes did not respond to multiple requests for comment left with his assistant. A 2002 Post-Gazette article reports that Aaron is the son of long-running former chairman, Edward G. Byrnes Jr.

Former Byrnes & Kiefer President & Chief Executive Officer, Scott Douglas, did not respond to multiple requests for comment left on his cell phone. Employees, and Douglas’s LinkedIn, state that his tenure expired at the end 2022.

Pennsylvania is an “at-will” employment state. According to the PA Department of Community and Economic Development, “an employer may terminate the services of an ‘at will’ employee, with or without cause, at any time — as long as an employee is not let go for an unlawful purpose, such as age or racial discrimination.”

“I’m OK right now, but the holidays just passed,” said a former packaging employee of more than 2 years. “Maybe I wouldn’t have spent what I spent had I known.”

“This puts a stop to plans I’ve been making,” they continued. “It’s been stressful mentally. Eventually, the money is going to run out. “