MILTON — Molar-breakers, tooth-dullers, and sheet iron — not exactly the names one might choose to describe a signature food.
But as one of the country’s last remaining producers of the dense, flour-and-water crackers known as hardtack (and other less-than-flattering terms that refer to their tooth-breaking hardness), the new owners of the G.H. Bent Co. of Milton are embracing the historical side of the company.
“If you buy [a company like Bent’s] you feel a little responsible,” said Sean Christie, co-owner of the 123-year-old Bent’s since December. “There’s a bit of looking after the history, keeping it alive.”
Bent’s hasn’t survived on crackers alone, though. While the traditional methods and recipes for its “old-fashioned” crackers like hardtack will continue, locals also know the company for its specialty sandwiches, baked goods, and “broken cookies,” the latter a result of a wholesale contract with the military during the World War II. The new owners also have plans to expand in both products and locations and bring greater visibility to Bent’s trademark crackers, which are available to the public at its deli, online at www.bentscookiefactory.com, and by phone.
Bringing the old into the present
New Zealand native Christie, of West Roxbury, and his business partner, Chris Twyman of Milton, are the newest caretakers of a food tradition started here in 1801. Retired sea captain Josiah Bent would load up his saddle bags with “water crackers” — made from a flour and water dough, rolled thin and baked — and take them to Boston Harbor to sell to ships for long voyages, according to Bent’s entry in the National Register of Historic Places. The “cracking” sound they made while cooling led him to coin the term “cracker,” and their longevity made hardtack a staple food for seafarers and the military. Bent’s Cracker Co. was a supplier of hardtack to the Union Army during the Civil War. When the original Bent’s was purchased by what is now Nabisco, Josiah Bent’s grandson, George Henry Bent, who had worked at Bent’s Cracker Co. for many years, established a competing company, the G.H. Bent Co. The company has been at its current location at 7 Pleasant St. since 1891.
Today, museums, historical societies, and Civil War re-enactors across the United States are the main purchasers of Bent’s hardtack. Civil War buffs use the crackers to contribute authentic detail to their re-enactments, down to the food they consume on the battlefield. Historical societies and museums use hardtack for demonstrations and educational purposes. Since taking over the company last year, said Christie, “we’ve got orders from California, Wyoming, Florida, Kansas. . . . It already amazes me how many museums . . . around the country contact us.”
But Bent’s crackers aren’t just for show, and the new owners hope to expand the market for their edible offerings. The company makes four kinds of crackers — hardtack, cold water crackers (sometimes called warming crackers), commons, and pilots — which together make up 5 percent or less of their overall business, estimates Christie.
Though a few companies still produce pilot crackers — Diamond Bakery in Hawaii and Interbake Foods, for examples — to Christie’s knowledge Bent’s is the only company still producing flour and water hardtack. Unlike hardtack and cold water crackers, circular “commons” and rectangular “pilots” are made of yeasted dough, with brown sugar and salt, and are thinner and more tender than hardtack. Commons and pilots are used for stuffing, both at Bent’s as part of its sandwich fixings and historically in New England. Pilots are also a traditional accompaniment to chowder.
“The ‘common’ crackers should be held by local wine shops,” Christie said in a recent interview, suggesting a potential new market for the traditional cracker. “I have them at home, with a little bit of cheese on them, with my wine, and it’s a nice little added flavor.”
And after a few months of getting to know the crackers better, Christie feels even hardtack “[isn’t] the vilified product I expected.” It’s actually quite good heated with butter, he says.
Christie and Twyman, a transplanted Englishman, have additional ideas on how to increase local visibility of the company’s cracker heritage. Future remodeling of their three-story factory will allow visitors to pass through the second floor to view how the old-fashioned crackers are made. They also would like to cultivate relationships with historical sites around Boston where they could offer their products — for example, the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship, docked in Boston Harbor, which could have carried hardtack supplied to the Navy by Bent’s during the War of 1812.
More than crackers
As a very young child, Christie dreamed of being a pastry chef. He baked his way through college while studying criminology and spent several years making bagels in New Zealand. After coming to the United States in 2006, Christie left a doctoral program in criminology at Northeastern University to return to baking at Bent’s. He has already put his skills to use, adding a few new items to Bent’s offerings, including bread puddings, cakes, and a flourless brownie, some of which are influenced by his New Zealand roots. These products will complement the cookies and specialty sandwiches that Bent’s is already known for among locals.
Milton resident Ellen Rogers remembers going to Bent’s as a child to get a bag of broken cookies, a tradition she maintained with her own children. Bent’s was nicknamed “The Broken Cookie Factory” around WWII, when a contract with the military to make cookies meant only the broken ones were left for local customers to purchase. Under the new owners, Bent’s still produces a variety of cookies, but in smaller batches than before, resulting in fewer broken ones. But bags of broken cookies are still occasionally available.
The sandwiches, which were added in the 1990s when Bent’s wholesale business declined, are also a draw for locals. Written on chalkboards hung on the deli wall, they are made with bread baked in-house and named after familiar identities and places around town. The “Wildcat Club”—a “triple-decker” of ham, turkey, bacon, and muenster on toasted sourdough — is a favorite of Milton resident Heidi Yakubowicz, who says Bent’s is her and her “daughter’s favorite place to grab a sandwich . . . a great alternative to a sub shop.”
The “Big Blue” is “like a turkey dinner in a sandwich,” says Milton resident Mark Baard.
In addition to widening their bakery products, Christie and Twyman have also talked about opening “satellite” bakery and cafe locations in the region, where products produced in the Milton factory will be sold. Though specific sites haven’t yet been identified, they anticipate finding locations within a one- to two-mile radius of their current address, to facilitate delivery.
Maintaining Bent’s traditions while offering new products would seem to be a recipe for success, reassuring longtime customers and drawing in new ones, the owners agree. As with past changes of ownership, “When the place came up for sale, lots of people were worried that it might change,” Christie said.
Jim Davis, who owned Bent’s from 2008 to 2013, had hoped the business would continue under new owners, according to a report on Boston.com. However, other uses for the building and location, such as apartments, had been considered, said Christie.
But the new owners appear to be well suited to ushering the company into its next phase, and hope that locals continue to support the 100-plus-year-old business.
Christie and Twyman are the sixth set of owners since the company left George H. Bent’s hands. Prior to Davis, the Pierotti family owned the company from 1944 to 2008. During that time, Bent’s acquired its broken cookie moniker, hardtack production was revived, the deli was added, and Bent’s became a national historic site. Christie and Twyman acquired the company in December 2013 for $694,000, according to Milton town records.
Christie lights up when describing another Massachusetts historical food factory: Ye Old Pepper Candy Companie in Salem, the oldest candy company in the country, which still preserves its traditional methods and machinery.
“It feels like you’re walking into a [Charles] Dickens story,” he said, describing the Salem establishment. “The place hasn’t changed since forever. It’s brilliant. I love it.”
Acquiring Bent’s not only matched Christie’s love of food history but also culminated his and Twyman’s dream of owning a bakery.
Twyman, the founder of two software companies, Zapoint and BoomWriter, will be responsible for the business and operation side of Bent’s.
“For a year or so we’d been looking to open a bakery and cafe ourselves,” recalled Christie. Then Twyman pointed out Bent’s.
“I said, ‘You know, it’d be kind of cool to own a cookie factory like that,’ ” said Christie. “One day [Twyman] drove past, and there was a ‘for sale’ on it . . . and it went from there.”