That's the way cookies crumble in Kingsbridge


Kate Pastor

Fudge-filled cookies and crunchy breadsticks. Stella D’oro, Italian for star of gold, instantly conjures images of baked goods in the minds of people throughout the country. For the Kingsbridge factory’s nearby neighbors, its distinctive scripted logo can also trigger memories of batting for the Stella D’oro Little League team, eating in the Stella D’oro restaurant or coming home from school and being carried away by the aroma of the cookies being made.

The company that began in 1930 is likely to end its nearly 80 year run in Kingsbridge when the factory is shut down in October. To its neighbors and the family that can claim the famous fragrance as its legacy, the decades have been about more than just cookies.

Joseph Kresevich, an Italian immigrant, and his wife, Angela Kresevich, opened up their first factory on Bailey Avenue around 1930 (there’s actually no family consensus on the company’s official beginning, though its trucks have that year emblazoned across them).

The Kresevichs moved the plant to its current location on West 237th Street and Broadway around 1950 and also opened up a red-checkered-tablecloth restaurant on the site within the decade.

After Mr. Kresevich died in 1965, he passed the business down to his wife Angela’s son from an earlier marriage, Felice Zambetti. A Riverdale resident with a home on West 246th Street, Mr. Zambetti shared control with his mother. As she aged, he increasingly took over dayto- day operations, raising his four children amid butter and dough.

“It was like Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory to me,” said Jonathan Zambetti, one of Felice’s sons, who now lives in Manhattan.

The Zambettis not only lived in the neighborhood, they were active and engaged in some of its most important institutions. They were major contributors to Wave Hill, and Felice’s wife Ada sat on its board. She was also involved at Riverdale Neighborhood House, a community outreach center, where she made sure baskets of cookies were on hand for events and board meetings. The company sponsored a Kingsbridge Little League team. And they gave generously to Riverdale Countr y School, where all four of their children attended — two of them as “lifers” from kindergarten through high school graduation. For years, the Stella D’oro restaurant hosted weekly Riverdale Kiwanis Club meetings.

The family opened a plant in California in the late 1950s, Jonathan recalls, and continued to expand, opening a plant in Illinois in 1979. But tragedy struck when Felice’s youngest son, Marc Zambetti, died in the San Francisco Bay earthquake of 1989.

He had moved to the west coast only about a month before, to work as the regional director of sales. Without him, it would be hard to hold onto the business for long.

Olimpio Trombetta, who worked as a foreman for 27 years, remembers being asked to show Marc and Jonathan the ropes when they were young adults so they could learn the family trade. Before Marc’s death, the two brothers had been expected to take over the business together.

“I just felt I couldn’t bear the responsibility alone,” Jonathan said.

The Zambetti boys were known around the factory. Mr. Trombetta remembers being invited to play pool with them at their home, he said, and when Marc died, he and the other workers attended the funeral.

“They hung around the stockroom, they came around the shop. We became friends,” Mr. Trombetta said.

Years before Marc Zambetti died, the family decided to close the restaurant for financial reasons. And the year after his death, there was a strike.

The bakery union, along with the Teamsters union, which represents the factory’s drivers, demanded retirement with a full pension once a worker’s age plus years of service reached 80. It took more than a month in 1990 for them to arrive at a compromise, and labor issues followed the company after it was sold in 1992 to Nabisco.

There was a Teamsters strike under Kraft (which bought Nabisco in 2000) and another bakery workers strike under Brynwood Partners, the private equity firm now blaming the conflict for the factory’s imminent shutdown.

But even labor disputes seemed sweeter under the company’s first owners.

“It was like a family feud and at the end of the day everyone was like, okay, we’re fine,” Jonathan Zambetti said of the strike.

His family, he said, was not anti-union.

“There’s really no such thing as bad unions, it’s bad management,” he remembers his father saying, meaning “bad management” gave away too many concessions. But he also remembers that after selling the company, his father sad he believed Nabisco would close it down for good.

“Even when we sold in the early 90s it was phenomenally inefficient,” Jonathan Zambetti said.

“It’s not how you would build a bakery today.”

Unlike the factory the family opened in Illinois, the original Bronx plant started out as a small structure with numerous additions put on, finally totaling three floors with many twists and turns and requiring more work to produce the same product.

Jonathan Zambetti, who is still in touch with a few of the workers, said the factory’s imminent closing after a nearly yearlong strike by the bakery union will be sad because it will erase the physical representation of a “huge part of our family history.” However, hearing people compare the company’s current owner to his “makes us kind of proud,” he said.

Over months on the picket line, many have looked back longingly at when the Zambettis owned the factory, saying that then their bosses saw them as people, not just workers.

“When I first went in through the family, I was a name,” Mr. Trombetta said.

Though he started a new job in May, he said he returned to work at the factory one last time on July 7, the first day union members went back to work after the strike.

If and when Brynwood closes the cookie factory in Kingsbridge, the company has said it plans to continue making the cookies someplace else. The union has already raised questions about the legality of that move, but there’s a good chance that the factory on West 237th Street will cease being Kingsbridge’s “star of gold.”

Its closing will not only be a loss to a neighborhood and a family, but will also represent another nail in the coffin of what was once New York City’s industrial core. According to Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan, Kingsbridge bloomed when the elevated No. 1 train station was erected in 1910. Several factories, including a Planter’s Peanut roasting plant and the Art Steel office furniture company had locations on or near Broadway.

Stella D’oro will be one of the last to close.

“All I can say is people in the neighborhood salivated often, every time Stella D’oro baked its goods,” Mr. Ultan said.