By: Christian Oberly
BRIDGETON, N.J. — Today, Bridgeton mourns the passing of Wayne A. Ernst, a pillar of the community, the first American Master Baker, and the face of Century Bakery — a true criterion of South Jersey confections.
Ernst, 68, was a long-time resident of Bridgeton, where he and his wife Barb had managed Century Bakery since the 1980s. A beloved husband and father, he passed suddenly on Jan. 12.
As a third-generation baker, Ernst learned the art of baking and decorating from his father back when Century Bakery was at its previous location on Cedar Street. When it moved to N. Pearl Street in 1982, Ernst and his wife took on leadership roles within the bakery. In 1989, he became the first-ever Certified Master Baker in the United States when he completed multiple rigorous written and practical exams for the Retail Bakers of America.
Born in Philadelphia on March 9, 1951, Ernst was the son of Albert Samuel Ernst and Lois Elaine Young Ernst. He graduated from Lincoln High School in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia in 1968 and from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1973.
After operating Century for decades and amassing a large, devoted following, Ernst’s bakery made headlines in 2015 when he began looking for someone to buy the business. In an article written by Don E. Woods for NJ.com, Ernst explained his desire to see the business continue once he retired. None of his children wanted to take the reins; they had already moved away and started families and careers of their own. Ernst was looking for a person who would want to maintain all the things that made Century special and keep the traditions alive: “We need to find someone who would love the place as much as we love it,” he said.
In 2018, he found that person.
Forming a partnership with Melissa Helmbrecht, the brains (and heart) behind many of the projects operating out of Hopeloft in Bridgeton, they created a plan to transform Century Bakery into a social enterprise — that is, a business organized for a charitable purpose.
Details of the partnership between Helmbrecht and Ernst were finalized in September 2019, and since then the two had been working closely to ensure the legacy of Century Bakery would continue for years to come. Plans have been put in place to develop a job training program utilizing the bakery to support local foster youth who are transitioning out of foster care — a demographic in great need of work experience if they are to thrive once they “age out” of the foster care system — as well as homeless youth, and other young people who can benefit from the opportunities that Century Bakery will provide.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Helmbrecht paid tribute to Ernst’s life and spoke of his lasting legacy.
“[The work of Century Bakery] now supports local charities that serve Bridgeton’s most vulnerable children and families. I cannot think of a greater legacy. I am certain I speak for so many in our community when I say we are so very grateful to Wayne Ernst and that he will be dearly missed. I extend my deepest sympathies to his loved ones during this difficult time,” Helmbrecht wrote.
According to an obituary published by the Freitag Funeral Home, Ernst “enjoyed reading, travel, and tinkering with his DeLorean. Wayne attended many baker conventions and visited bakeries on any trip, always looking for new and better ways to serve his customers whom he truly enjoyed serving with quality and kindness.”
And his customers enjoyed being served.
Ernst’s life and work has touched many in the area. A sampling of reviews of Century Bakery posted online yields a glimpse into the way he’s impacted the sweet tooths (teeth?) of many.
There are hundreds of five-star reviews, and while some simply say, “yum,” “AMAZING,” or “best donuts ever,” — others delve a little deeper in portraying how a small bakery in Bridgeton has brought some light into their lives.
One customer, Shua Aldrich, left a five-star review on Google, writing, “My first bite was immediately proceeded by uncontrollable sobbing … joyous sobbing … as I experienced emotions long dormant. And with this sobbing came a cathartic healing. I have been freed by these pastries. This confectionary sanctuary hosts the BEST donuts I’ve ever had.”
Another five-star review, posted by Kyle Westcott, expressed his yearning for Century’s donuts now that he’s moved out of state, and called Ernst “the nicest guy you’ll meet in all of Bridgeton.”
These reviews are only a small taste of how Wayne A. Ernst will be remembered.
Ernst is survived by his wife, Barbara Buzby Ernst, whom he met while working at the bakery as a teenager; three children, David, Richard, and Kristin; and seven grandchildren.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend the funeral services at the Freitag Funeral Home located at 137 W. Commerce St. in Bridgeton on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 1:00 P.M. Friends will be received at the funeral home beginning at 11:00 A.M. Thursday morning until the time of the service. Century Bakery will also be closed on Thursday in observance of Ernst’s funeral services.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are requested to the Fairfield Presbyterian Church, of which Ernst was an active member — serving as both an elder, and as a teacher in their Sunday school.
Fairfield Presbyterian Church
PO Box 68
Fairton, NJ 08320