Even in retirement, Tom Lehmann isn’t about to relinquish his title of “The Dough Doctor.”
After about 50 years, the 70-year-old Manhattan-area resident is stepping down from his bakery assistance director position at Manhattan-based AIB International, where he became known worldwide as an expert on pizza production and dough troubleshooting.
That hard-earned renown isn’t going to fade.
“I flatly refuse to give it up,” Lehmann said of the nickname given to him by industry peers.
“I protect that title,” he said. “I value that title and will never disrespect that title.”
Lehmann said he’ll continue as a consultant and will still write columns for industry magazines — something he’s been doing since 1979.
“The only difference is right now I’m in a T-shirt and shorts,” Lehmann said. “That dress code wasn’t exactly approved at AIB.”
Lehmann made a name for himself in the pizza industry shortly after AIB hired him in 1965 as a baking technologist. In 1967, he was contracted to reverse engineer a popular pizza being made in Chicago.
After finding success in the endeavor, he quickly became the company’s pizza expert — at a time when pizza hadn’t yet become such a staple in Americans’ diets. He also held once-a-month pizza parties with fellow employees.
“That became our special night out,” Lehmann, said, likening the parties to a family’s night out to eat at a restaurant for a change of pace.
“It’s a family,” he said of working at AIB. “It’s not a job.”
Lehmann goes by the old saying that those who wake up in the morning, head to work and love what they do aren’t really working. In his nearly 50 years as an AIB employee, Lehmann’s only been absent nine days.
That time spent working has helped Lehmann develop a “wealth of knowledge,” said Brian Strouts, vice president of baking and food technical services at AIB.
“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve gone to him with a question about something,” Strouts said.
Now-massive chains such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s were still small operations when Lehmann began developing his reputation as an expert.
“The big guys were just basically sticking their heads up,” he said.
But before he knew it, Lehmann was consulting with pizza makers both large and small. The door had been opened, and the growing industry’s leaders began seeking him as a consultant.
Then, the pizza-making expert made his move to Manhattan.
Lehmann was the first AIB employee to come to Manhattan when the company decided to begin relocating from Chicago in 1978. Manhattan was one of the cities on the list of possible locations for the move, which also included cities in Virginia, Colorado and Florida.
“I had drawn a line in the sand at the time,” Lehmann said of the time when the company was considering the move.
Had AIB moved east of the Mississippi River, Lehmann would have left to one of the other jobs he had lined up. But move west, and he was on board.
“I’m a country boy,” he said. “I’m not a city boy. I always considered myself out of place in Chicago.”
The move worked well out for both parties.
“He’s that link to what our history has been – all the customers we’ve had, all the projects we’ve done,” Strouts said.
Soon after he moved to the Little Apple, Lehmann’s wife, Sue, followed with their two sons Jerry and Tim.
Now, years later, the family is firmly entrenched.
“Manhattan’s got everything I could ask for and a little bit more,” Lehmann said.
Aside from more time to hunt and fish, retirement offers Lehmann a chance to indulge his passion for helping others.
Lehmann has done cement work for his neighbors and also has plowed their driveways after snow storms. He’ll even plow the entire cul-de-sac when needed.
“I don’t take a dime for it,” Lehmann said. “To me, that’s being neighborly.”
In his opinion, those acts of kindness are probably more appreciated in communities Manhattan’s size and smaller. Though he moved to Kansas from Chicago, Lehmann said he readily adopted that neighborliness.
“The whole state has a rural environment, and that’s important to me,” he said.
That’s why, even in retirement, the Dough Doctor isn’t going anywhere.