Franzes have kneaded dough since 1906

It spins doggedly in the Portland sky, a beacon to failed Atkins dieters everywhere Ñ the giant loaf of bread that marks the site of Franz Bakery, the oldest family-operated bakery in the United States.

'This is more than just a bakery, this is a piece of history,' says Becky Cartier, who leads tours through the scent-sational structure in Northeast Portland.

It's also the 50th year that Franz has offered free tours of the bakery, which issued its first baked good in 1906.

The hourlong tour begins with a short presentation about the history of the Franz family, which is in its fourth generation of management. Cartier also shares fun facts about the ABCs of wheat production.

Who knew that Egypt is the world's leading buyer of Oregon wheat? Or that almost every fast-food restaurant in the Northwest gets its buns from Franz, a demand that requires the bakery to produce up to 1 million buns per day?

Once imbued with this wheaty wisdom, guests are asked to remove jewelry and don a hairnet, lest any unwanted fiber find its way into the day's dough.

After stepping into the warm, peaceful hum of the factory, the first stop is the sifting station, where 175 pounds of flour shoot up through the canvas chutes each minute, eventually settling in the mixing room. Here, wide-eyed visitors are entertained by the violent pummeling of Dumpster-size masses of dough.

This is also where Franz bakers, who show solidarity with visitors by also wearing hairnets, add the giant buckets of seasoning that makes one restaurant's roll different from another's.

This day, the gooey mixture is poured through a hatch into the floor and into a machine that will separate the 1,400-pound blob into 4,000 buns-to-be. The oozing, almost sci-fi quality of the dough lends the scene a 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' vibe. All that's missing is Augustus Gloop's greed-provoked swan dive into the mix.

Fed onto a stream of oversize baking trays, the plump fingers of dough travel along a conveyer belt until they are fed into the mouth of a giant oven. This mother of all ovens bakes 7,000 buns at once and is the size of a school gymnasium. In an accelerated gestation process, each bun is in the oven for a mere eight minutes.

Once the bread emerges from the oven, it's time to hit the road Ñ what Franz calls the 'bun highway' Ñ and cool down. Suspended from the bakery's ceiling, the quarter-mile track resembles a surreal art installation, with its steady flow of identical golden rolls passing overhead.

After exiting the freeway of loaf, the buns are ready to be sliced and packaged. A quick puff of air readies the appropriate plastic bag for its contents, and a machine slides the bread into place.

Finally, a plastic clip is applied with a mechanical flourish, and the bag is placed on a rack, ready to roll into a waiting delivery truck.

Tour visitors may have only glimpsed a fraction of the bread's seven-hour journey from flour to finish, but the fascinating visit is still the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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