GULFPORT — Since 1949, the McKnight family has been baking tasty bread, doughnuts, cakes and other sweet treats at Quality Bakery. The business was started by James A. McKnight Sr., who was followed as a baker by his son, Al. The bakery is now run by third-generation family members, Patrick McKnight and Alesia McKnight LeBatard, affectionately called Lee Lee. Originally located on 13th Street, the business moved to its present U.S. 49 location in 1970.
There’s an amazing variety of baked goods in the glass-fronted display cases and the smells are overwhelmingly good. In addition to French bread, doughnuts, twists, cinnamon rolls and breakfast muffins, there are cupcakes and cookies of all kinds including frosted cookies for special occasions and king cakes.
Not one to waste anything, McKnight says his favorite part of baking is coming up with something different each day with leftover ingredients.
“I also like seeing people come in, especially the regulars,” he says. “They’re yanking on the door wanting in as soon as the hot doughnuts come out about six o’clock. If the front door is locked, they go to the back door.”
This devoted baker gets up at 3:15 a.m. to begin making doughnuts and fresh bread for the longstanding restaurant accounts he has. He gets a break to go home when his sister, and only other employee, comes in around 9 a.m. However, he returns to the bakery later in the day.
“I was raised in it,” he says when asked if he ever considered doing anything else. “I worked in Houston for a while after graduation. Daddy called and asked if I wanted the business and I came home to take it.”
LeBatard, whose business card declares her the S.O.B. (Sister of the Boss), has worked at Quality Bakery since age 12 when their dad dragged over a Coke box for her to stand on to reach the counters. She started cake decorating at 14 and that remains her specialty.
“I worked in mental health for five years, but I had to come home to the bakery,” she said. “My customers are my family and I really enjoy it. Some of them say it’s the best place in town to get tormented. If I pick on you, I love you.”
One of Quality’s regulars, Gulfport harbormaster D.J. Ziegler, says LeBatard remembers what each person buys each day and starts sacking it up when they walk in the door. He admits LeBatard has thrown a doughnut hole at him for occasionally messing up her system with a surprise order.
“It’s a social event in here,” he says. “Someone who’s been away from the Coast will say ‘this tastes just like I remember it.’ Generations shop here. You hear people say their parents and grandparents shopped here and they like that things taste the same way. They know what to expect.”
McKnight says the tastes are traditional because the same recipes have been passed down in the family and the baked goods are made the time-honored way.
Ziegler says his morning favorites are the banana muffins and glorious morning muffins. Sometimes he returns in the afternoon to buy unfrosted brownies for himself and frosted cookies and cupcakes for neighborhood children.
LeBatard thinks the bakery’s success stems from being a third-generation family business. “Everyone who comes in here feels like family, too,” she said. “We get to know people inside and out. I can look at them and know if something is wrong. We’ve developed that kind of relationship.”
She and her brother worry that the business may not continue with the next generation. Each has two children, a boy and a girl, none of whom have shown any interest in becoming bakers. LeBatard and McKnight are hopeful at least one of their children will have a change of mind and heart.
“My daughter worked here one summer and said ‘no, no,’” McKnight said.
LeBatard points out that running a bakery is hard work. “The new generation is different,” she said. “Customers don’t understand how hard it is. We still have those early morning hours and long hours.”
She adds that everything — bread, doughnuts and specially-ordered cakes — is fresh. “This is not a grocery store bakery,” she said. “Our customers are looking for a certain standard. Every cake I do is different, and everything I do is from the heart.”
LeBatard was surprised recently when her husband, Sid, told her he could probably learn to bake if needed to keep the business going.
“Our parents and grandparents gave everything they had to this place. They didn’t take vacations and both our parents died early. The business started closing on Sundays after dad died,” she said. “Patrick and I decided we need to have a life, devote time to our spouses, and not let this place consume us.”
After that heart-to-heart talk, Patrick McKnight took the first scuba diving trip he’d had in 15 years. “It’s what keeps me going,” he says. “I work to go scuba diving. We put a sign on the door, closed to go on vacation, and people understand.”
He says making everyone happy is the biggest challenge of a bakery and keeping up with rising costs of supplies. “Increasing costs are not that bad but we did have to raise our prices last year,” he said.
Quality Bakery’s wooden display cases are original to the business and the large, study work table in the kitchen is one McKnight at age 10 watched his dad and grandfather build. The industrial mixer is the same age as this baker — 47 — and he’s only replaced a belt since he’s been using it. The doughnut fryers and ovens are also the same ones bought by his dad.
“I’ve had to purchase freezers and refrigerators but that’s all,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.
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