For decades, Bunny Bread has been a household name for Midwest families. The brand, with its iconic cartoon bunny on the label, is among the most well-known bakery labels in the country. Trademarked by Lewis Bakeries, the brand and its founders got their start in Illinois, before moving to Indiana in the 1960s. The fascinating story of the establishment and development of the bakery and its iconic brand is one of patience, perseverance, and innovation.
On February 1, 1925, brothers Amos, Arnold, and Jack Lewis opened a small bread-baking operation in a rented log cabin in Anna, Illinois. The older two brothers, Amos and Arnold, had begun working in bakeries as teenagers and had finally decided the time had come to establish their own brand: the Lewis Brothers Bakery was born!
Since they lacked capital, their mother took out a $300 mortgage on her home, then lent them money to rent the log cabin and bakery equipment. They purchased other supplies, such as baking ingredients and a Model T delivery truck, on credit. In the early months of operation, the brothers would use the day’s proceeds to buy ingredients for the next day’s bread. Business was tight.
The first few months of operations exhausted the Lewis brothers. They had just enough money to build their customer base and pay their debts, but little else. They did all the work themselves since they couldn’t afford workers. They would bake bread all night, make deliveries each morning, then get a few hours of sleep in the afternoon. The baking process itself was an arduous task without expensive automated equipment. The brother’s early runs of bread, named “Milk-Maid,” were molded by hand, baked in a makeshift brick oven, and hand-wrapped.
After several months of diligent work, the brothers’ business expanded. They were able to hire a few employees, move to a larger facility and purchase equipment that allowed them to automate much of the baking process. These investments increased their baking capacity to around 500 loaves of bread per hour! Soon, the Lewis brothers’ bread sat on shelves all over southern Illinois.
The Lewis Brothers’ Bakery continued to grow its business and production capacity, and by 1933, they produced 16,000 loaves a day. In 1941, they added a new line of bakery goods to their wares. The brothers also experimented with updated branding for their product line, adding names like Butternut and Big Boy.
Jack Lewis eventually took over management of the bakery. Under Jack’s leadership, the bakery continued to innovate and expand. In 1940, the bakery incorporated as Lewis Bakeries with Jack as president. By 1947, the company had 12 delivery routes, employed 50 people, and produced 75,000 loaves of bread each week.
Jack also created the iconic “Bunny Bread” brand. The bakery’s famous Bunny cartoon figure first appeared on packaging for Lewis Brothers’ Butternut Bread in 1947. It became so popular with customers that the company eventually trademarked the name “Bunny Bread” for their bakery products. The memorable bunny, along with the catchy slogan, “That’s what I said, Bunny Bread!” became an immediate marketing sensation and could be seen in commercials, newspaper ads, and billboards all over the Midwest.
In 1951, the company invested in a new facility on the outskirts of Anna. The factory became a local landmark, proudly displaying a neon image of the brand’s bunny on its roof, along with a neon sign that read THE HOME OF BUNNY BREAD.
In 1954, Jack signed a deal with the American Bakers’ Cooperative giving independent bakers across the country the right to produce and distribute Bunny Bread, ushering the company into the national market.
In 1964, Lewis Bakeries embarked on an expansion effort of its own. Determined to reach additional Midwestern customers, Lewis Bakeries purchased the Hartford Bakery in Evansville, Indiana, and opened their first Indiana baking facility. The division was run by Jack’s son, R.J. Lewis, Jr. Company sales soared to more than $12 million annually by 1969.
In the early 1970s, after more than 45 years in Illinois, the company headquarters migrated to Evansville. By this time, Bunny Bread was being sold throughout the Midwest, and the Indiana facility was seen as a central location. In 1986, a second Indiana facility, focused on the production of sweet goods, opened in Vincennes.
R.J.,Jr. continued to grow and expand the company’s Midwestern sales throughout the 1970s and 1980s and developed new lines of modern baked goods. In 1987, the bakery became the first in the country to remove trans fats from its products. In 1991, they began selling the first fat-free, reduced-calorie, bread on the market, then introduced a line of low-carb products in 2000. Lewis Bakeries was also innovative in the development of half-package sizes of their best-selling products.
Today, grocery stores across the Midwest carry many products from Lewis Bakeries. While their beloved Bunny Bread brand remains a customer favorite, the company’s product line also includes the Hartford Farms and Gateway brands. They have a hand in several well-known national products, acting as wholesale distributor of the Sunbeam, Sun-Maid, and Roman Meal brands.
Lewis Bakeries is one of few independent bakeries left in Midwest. It’s also the largest wholesale bakery currently operating in Indiana, with annual sales exceeding $265 million. Lewis Bakeries remains a family-operated business in its fourth generation and continues to run operations from its Evansville headquarters, now additional bakeries in Fort Wayne, LaPorte, Vincennes, and Kentucky.