Johnnie Sledge knows a secret.
He’s the plant manager of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s bakery in South Korea, and that means he holds the formula for Wonder Bread.
The plant on Camp Market churns out the iconic American brand and other bread, buns, doughnuts, tortillas and more to be delivered fresh every day to commissaries, dining facilities, restaurants and schools on U.S. bases across South Korea.
Nearly all the ingredients, including 2.5 million pounds of flour per year come from the United States. Only fresh yeast and sugar are purchased locally, Sledge said during a recent tour of the 30,000-square-foot facility on the Army base southwest of Seoul.
“Wonder Bread here is the same Wonder Bread you would get back in Indiana,” he said, standing in the humid fermentation room near bathtub-size vats of rising dough.
It’s one of four AAFES bakeries overseas that promise “to deliver a taste of home for those who put their lives on the line for us.” The others are in Tokyo and Okinawa, Japan, and Grunstadt, Germany.
The exchange is the only organization authorized to make Wonder products outside the United States. Other popular brands include Home Pride, Country Hearth and Milton’s.
Why does the military need bread baked within the barbed wire perimeter in countries full of state-of-the-art bakeries outside the gate?
“It’s that name brand, that feel of home for our customers,” Sledge said.
Concerns about food safety and Department of Agriculture standards required for the school meal program also prevent officials from turning to the local economy.
“It would be so much more expensive, plus it wouldn’t be USDA approved,” AAFES director Tom Shull said in a separate interview. “And it can be a security threat because we control all those elements and make sure that this is a secure facility.”
So far this year, the 39 South Korean employees and 12 drivers have produced 454,079 loaves of bread, 369,971 packages of buns, 27,695 dozen doughnuts and tens of thousands of other baked goods.
A freezer also holds an emergency supply of bread in case of a strike or an unexpected ship visit.
The cake decorator is the only woman on the production staff.
MOVING TO HUMPHREYS
Jennifer Dunyon, an Army civilian contractor who has worked in South Korea for just over a year, was happy to hear the bread is made on the peninsula instead of frozen like many other products shipped from the United States.
“Then we get fresher bread instead of frozen en route,” she said while shopping at the commissary at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. “I’m watching my fitness so for me to want to eat bread it has to be fresh.”
The exchange has run the bakery in South Korea since 1969, although operations moved to the current building in 1974.
They’re getting ready to move again as part of the relocation of most U.S. forces on the divided peninsula to an expanded Camp Humphreys, about 40 miles south of Seoul.
The new estimated $40 million building will consolidate the bakery and a distribution center.
With the move, the bakery will start making Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It’s also getting rid of an aging production line, including a massive oven known as “Big Bertha” and the overhead conveyer belt that acts as a cooling rack.
The equipment is so old it requires its own stash of spare parts and tools crammed into what Sledge calls the “MacGyver room.”
Sledge, a 60-year-old food services veteran and the only American on staff, has extended his contract in hopes of overseeing the transition, expected to happen in 2019 after several delays.
“That’s one thing we’re really looking forward to in moving to Humphreys. Everything is going to be new,” Sledge said. “This stuff won’t even make it across the street let alone down to Humphreys.”
In 2012, U.S. Forces Korea considered closing the bakery and using frozen bread or getting it locally instead of moving it, but the commander decided it was a force-protection issue, Sledge said.
The local community in Incheon also is eager to get rid of Camp Market, which has been largely vacated and looks more like a ghost town than a military installation.
In October, South Korea’s Environment Ministry announced that an inspection found that soil and groundwater on the base had been contaminated with toxic chemicals, oil and other potentially harmful substances.
Sledge said the bakery’s water is tested regularly and has not been affected by the contamination.
“They’re saying the contamination was mostly from oils and gas and diesel fuel. We don’t have anything like that here,” he said. “We just had an audit in October and it was good.”
© 2017 the Stars and Stripes
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.