Wayne A. Ernst, 68, of Bridgeton, a master baker whose Century Bakery was famous for its German pastries and old-world customer service, died Jan. 12 of cardiac arrest at his home.
Ernst was the last in a long line of bakers. His grandfather John Ernst emigrated from Austria and set up a bakery in Mayfair in the 1930s. His father, Albert, acquired the bakery in 1961, and Ernst in turn bought the Cumberland County business in 1981.
The bakery, a fixture on Pearl Street, was known for its wedding cakes, doughnuts bursting with homemade butter creme and its chewy, flaky fried pastries swirled in cinnamon.
It held an annual Doughnut Day on Shrove Tuesday, when it made fastnachts, the German doughnuts that were once intended to clear the pantry of sugar and fat just before Lent.
Former residents said online that no trip to Bridgeton was complete without visiting the Century Bakery. It was the personal service that drew them.
“Every customer has told me that when they went to the bakery, he would stop what he was doing and greet every customer with a smile, wearing his white bakery hat,” said his daughter, Kristin Thompson.
“He didn’t feel like he was selling doughnuts or cakes, he felt like he was selling happiness,” said his son, David W. Ernst. “After he died, people took off work who were customers to come to his service.”
Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Albert Samuel Ernst and Lois Elaine Young Ernst. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1968 and from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1973.
As he grew up, Ernst split his time between Philadelphia and Bridgeton, where his father taught him the art of baking and decorating the fresh treats.
He was adamant about one thing: “When I grew up, I was not going to be a baker,” he told NJ.com in a 2015 interview.
Ernst had fun making enough money to travel in Europe while in college. But when his father died at 59, duty called. Ernst and his wife, Barbara Buzby Ernst, took over management of the business.
In 1989, he completed rigorous practical and written exams administered by the Retail Bakers of America to become the first certified master baker in the country, the Ernst family said in a statement.
To qualify as a master baker, a candidate had to manage a baking operation, produce quality baked goods and demonstrate a knowledge of sanitation, merchandising and training.
In 2015, realizing his three children had families and careers at a distance and would not take over the business, he put the bakery up for sale.
“I want Century Bakery to go forward as it has, for the sake of our 15-member staff, our customers, and, admittedly, my ego,” he tweeted. “Don’t worry, I won’t let go unless I’m confident the place is in good hands.”
In September 2019, he sold the business to Hopeloft, a local nonprofit. Hopeloft and the Ernst family had developed a job training program using the bakery to support local youth who are transitioning out of foster care.
“As we mourn the passing of the first Master Baker himself, we have him to thank for creating a beloved business that will support those in need in our own community,” Hopeloft Director Melissa Helmbrecht said in a message she posted.
Ernst was a member of Fairfield Presbyterian Church in Fairton, where he served as an elder and Sunday school teacher. He loved the beach in Ocean City and spending time reading, traveling and tinkering with his DeLorean car.
Ernst attended many baker conventions and visited other bakeries on any trip.
“That was my dad’s hobby, to travel around the country always visiting bakeries and looking for ideas,” Thompson said.
Besides his wife, son and daughter, he is survived by son Richard J., seven grandchildren, a sister and a brother.
Services were Jan. 16. Interment was in Overlook Cemetery in Bridgeton.