DU Alumni

Alumna’s future starts out with a bit of the culinary past

If you didn’t know Whitney Turnbull, you might think she took the easy route to success. After all, she graduated from DU in May 2011, and by July she was helping run her family’s longtime business along with her sister, Katy, and her dad, Wayne.

Scratch the surface a little, though, and you’ll see it wasn’t so easy. For starters, her degree is in sociology, not business. And the business — well, it’s a melba toast factory in New Orleans. While those ultra-thin pieces of toasted, pressed French bread were popular with dieters in the mid-20th century, most people under 35 or so have never heard of them, so they don’t exactly sell themselves.

And then there’s the factory itself. Opened in 1907 as an ice cream cone factory, and converted to melba toast production half a century later, much of its original machinery was engineered by Turnbull’s dad and grandfather — and is still in use.

“When I got here in July, it was so hot — it was like 115 degrees inside the bakery. One of my first projects was to clean up the maintenance room — with its 65 years of machinery. I had to learn the ins and outs; if something broke, I had to know how to fix it,” Turnbull says. “But my dad was adamant that to be successful, my sister Katy and I would have to start at ground zero, where he was when he started. For all of July and August and most of September, I was working every single position on the line.”

It’s what her grandmother, who ran the business for most of its history, would have wanted, too.

“As long as I can remember, Nana was just this go-getter. It was her way or the highway,” Turnbull says. And though Nana definitely didn’t befriend her employees (“She would barely look you in the eyes, but if she did, she would say something critical,” Turnbull recalls), she garnered tremendous respect in the community. She worked until a couple months before her death at age 89 in 2010. And then the factory shut down.

“New Orleans people are freaks about melba toast — they just love it. We [sold] it in the majority of the old staple restaurants here,” Turnbull says. “When the factory shut down, they were calling off the hook and so upset, writing articles about where the melba toast went.”

A year later, when Turnbull and her sister talked their father into resuming production, it was like Christmas in Whoville.

“I’ve had people walk up to me and hug me and say, ‘Thank you for bringing it back,’” she says.

But restarting the factory also brought numerous challenges.

“We’ve had weeks where no one gets their hours in because all the machinery is broken. Tons of things have gone wrong — the toaster caught fire, ridiculous things.”

Likewise, a recent inventory excess meant the factory had to halt production temporarily. During the slowdowns, Turnbull helped some staff members — many of whom had worked at the plant for decades and didn’t know any other livelihood — file for unemployment.

“I like just helping people and learning about them. I think that’s where the sociology comes in,” she says.

Now that she’s learned every job on the line, Turnbull is putting her degree to use in other ways, too.

As Turnbull Bakeries’ customer service specialist, she meets with distributors, wholesalers, restaurants and caterers and follows up with phone calls and visits.

“I love the relationships,” she says, “I’m the people person.”

Her determination has gone a long way, but she also gives props to Professor Peter Adler in DU’s sociology department.

“Professor Adler can prepare you for anything, because he’s amazing,” Turnbull says. “DU taught me to be way more open than I would have been, had I stayed in the South, where I grew up. It’s not just the sociology department; I think DU is a way more open community in general.”

Turnbull says that more than anything, she hopes she can continue her grandmother’s legacy of getting the job done — and done well.

“I don’t know if I can lay down the law as much as Nana did, but I hope my sister and I can get the same respect she had — but maybe be less hard,” Turnbull says. “I have that in me, but so far I haven’t had to do that.”

Turnbull says running the family business is her long-term plan, rather than just one stop on her career journey.

“I think I could do this for the rest of my life,” she says. “If you had asked me that a month ago, though, I would have said, ‘No way. I still need to travel, be a kid, be a ski bum for a winter.’ Now, I’ve gotten in the routine. Waking up at 5:30 every morning is easy now. It’s definitely made me grow up. I don’t necessarily see myself in New Orleans; when our product line expands, and melba toast isn’t such a New Orleans thing, we can move a plant anywhere. Dad always says the good thing about owning your own business — it’s a lot of responsibility and diligent detail, and you have to be on the ball — but it also gives you independence and freedom.”

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