What it's like to be part of a snack empire

Gardetto’s – the pretzels, the rye crackers, the breadsticks, the secret spices … You know them, you love to crunch them, but did you know Gardetto’s started as a family bakery?

Meet Johnny Gardetto

Johnny Gardetto is a principal engineer at our Milwaukee, Wisconsin, plant and has been there for more than 34 years. He focuses on facilities projects, processing enhancement and packaging in the facility where Chex, Bugles – and yes, Gardetto’s – are made.

He is actually the third generation of Gardetto’s to be involved with making the snack his family created.

Built in 1968 and originally owned by the Gardetto family, the Milwaukee plant was acquired when General Mills purchased their snack business in 1999.

But where did the Gardetto’s get their start?

In a corner shop on the south side of Milwaukee, Italian immigrants Baptiste and Diane Gardetto began baking fresh bread and breadsticks in 1932.

“Some evenings my grandfather played bass horn or bass fiddle in an orchestra to earn money to buy ingredients,” says Johnny. “After ending his workday at the bakery, he sold baked goods door-to-door.”

In 1938, Gardetto’s Bakery moved to a prime location in the heart of the Bay View neighborhood.

The couple had two sons, John and Richard. And as the boys grew up, they learned the business and helped out in a variety of roles. The bakery grew to full service and produced fine quality breads, cakes and pastries.

As the product line grew, so did their reputation. But the bakery was always most famous for their breadsticks – the ends of which were removed, packaged and sold at a discount.

Beyond the corner bakery

It was John, Sr. who eventually helped grow the business beyond “corner bakery” status.

His wife, Judy, used the ends of those breadsticks to create snacks that became popular when entertaining friends and family. In 1981, she created a crowd favorite using breadstick ends marinated in oil, garlic and Worcestershire sauce then baked in her kitchen oven.

The mix was dubbed “Gardetto’s Snak-Ens” and quickly became a bestseller in the bakery.

Daughter Nan convinced her parents to make the product commercially. It was packaged in 10 lb. bulk and sold to local bars and restaurants out of the family station wagon.

One year later, John, Sr., added pretzels, rye chips and Chex cereal to the mix and “Gardetto’s Deluxe Snak-Ens” was born.

After a slow start marketing the product to high end gourmet and specialty shops in the Midwest, the Gardetto family decided to market a trial size package for vending machines in 1987. Instead of the one ounce bags that were the industry norm, Gardetto’s were packaged in 1 3/4 ounce packages with windows so customers could see the product. The gamble paid off and was so successful that production could not keep up with demand.

Hitting the big time

Gardetto’s snack mix caught the attention of General Mills and, in 1999, we purchased the company.

While many varieties and flavors have been introduced and reformulated over the years, the best seller is still Original Recipe – Gardetto’s “Deluxe Snak-Ens” flavor.

And Johnny Gardetto still works at General Mills! But it looks like the third generation may be the final generation.

“I am very happily married for 28 years to my wife Janice and we have four children,” he says. All of them have bright futures, but none of them are looking to stay in the family business.

“General Mills has been a great fit for me. I feel blessed to have worked with so many great people,” says Johnny.

And we’re lucky that the Gardetto family is such a big part of the General Mills family.