On today's episode of Liminal Criminals, we recount the rise and fall of the Garlic Pit's death-prone mascot, Mister Breadsticks, as well as that of his creator Charles Oberfeldt.
CONTENT WARNING: Liminal Criminals is a fictional crime/comedy podcast, and contains references to violence which may not be suitable for all audiences. Listener discretion is advised.
What is the chief value of a nation? Is it a cultural mainstay? A shared experience? A common dream? What dwells in the heart of its people?
In America, that position is filled by the chain restaurant. From the fast-food franchises dotting the country’s highways, to the conglomerate of casual dining chains in any American suburb, few things represent this nation better than these noble institutions.
And few chains have achieved as much success as the Garlic Pit. Today, it stands at the forefront of the American casual dining industry, represented by its mascot, Garlic Pit Gilbert.
But, decades ago, this culinary titan was represented by a different figurehead. A figurehead that encompassed the myriad values of the Garlic Pit. A figurehead that alienated as many customers as it drew in. A figurehead that, after a string of grizzly accidents and brutal killings, was withdrawn from the public eye.
As a culture, we puzzled over these deaths. As a people, we wondered what lay behind this mascot’s rise and fall. As one nation, we asked, “Who Killed Mister Breadsticks?”
I’m Sam Putnam. And you’re listening… to Liminal Criminals.
Mister Breadsticks was the brain child of Charles Oberfeldt, former CEO of Trough Foods and founder of the Garlic Pit. Then a vice president at the company, Oberfeldt founded the first Garlic Pit franchise in San Jose, California in 1979. The Garlic Pit specializes in what it calls “Italian-American fusion cuisine,” a fact which has made the restaurant controversial in culinary circles. The restaurant’s ketchup-based marinara recipe, its inclusion of controversial menu items like “The Alfredo Bucket,” and its alleged involvement in the Parmesan Scam of 1981, have made it into a target of sorts. It is illegal for any establishment in New York to serve food to a Garlic Pit employee. Oberfeldt’s immediate family has been banned, on pain of death, from the nation of Italy.
Despite societal clamor against The Garlic Pit, it has been a perennial favorite of middle America, with the restaurant earning over 4.3 billion dollars in sales during 2019 alone. For every enraged foodie denouncing the restaurant, there is a customer willing to devour an American Cheese Lasagna or slurp up a signature Daquiricotta through a penne crazy straw. In casual dining’s quest for the lowest common denominator, the Garlic Pit remains number one.
The Garlic Pit’s polarizing nature and mainstream appeal were given a face in 1983, when Charles Oberfeldt unveiled his restaurant’s mascot. In an interview with Eatery Monthly, Oberfeldt explained, “The face of the Garlic Pit needs to be the most relatable and likable thing on Earth. He needs to evoke an image of delicious food that doesn’t shy away from a mess or a class-action lawsuit. He needs to be friendly, happy, and just a little wacky.” To this end, Charles Oberfeldt created Mister Breadsticks, a singing, dancing Italian baguette, wearing a business suit stained with tomato sauce, and sporting a wildly-grinning face which perfectly resembled that of his creator.
To say that Mister Breadsticks was a “hit” may be overly generous. Like his patron restaurant, a vocal minority of America despised him, decrying his plastic rictus and suspiciously-stained suit as “disturbing.” His advertisements throughout the ‘80s only exacerbated this image, as they typically displayed Mister Breadsticks ambushing or hunting down innocent people in an attempt to give them spaghetti. His catchphrases, “Scream for the Sauce” and “You Can’t Run from Pasta Fun,” made matters worse. Most egregious of all, however, was the Garlic Pit’s 1991 ad campaign. Dubbed “Notorious B.R.E.A.D.” by the 1990s advertisement enthusiast community, it was recorded through an unmoving fish-eye lens focused directly on Mister Breadsticks’ face as he attempted to rap about the new “Rigatoni Wrap,” a fresh take on an existing Garlic Pit staple, “the ziti-rito.” The man inside the Breadstick-suit, former TV star Dennis Paulsen, later admitted that he barely knew what rap was at the time, as he was then in recovery from a ten-year-long coma. Paulsen’s ignorance was obvious to viewers, as he delivered the Garlic Pit marketing screed by singing it at a single pitch, never moving or changing his tone while doing so. The commercial was decried for its bizarre content, with parnts across the country claiming that the ad campaign had given their children nightmares.
Paulsen was quickly fired following the Notorious B.R.E.A.D. campaign, not for his unsatisfactory performance, but for his refusal to sign a new contract from Trough Foods, which stated that any actor playing Mister Breadsticks would be required to change their name to that of the character they portrayed.
In spite of the scars that its advertisements left on a generation, the Garlic Pit kept bringing in business. In 1993, it alone boasted net sales nearing 1.2 billion dollars. Trough Food’s stock price had tripled within the past ten years. California put out a Garlic Pit commemorative license plate on July 4th of 1994. What’s more, this success was shared by Charles Oberfeldt himself. Oberfeldt, now CEO of Trough Foods had graced the cover of Business Weekly and Time for his decision to offer drive-through bar service at select restaurants. It seemed that neither Oberfeldt, Breadsticks, nor the Garlic Pit could fail.
The first hitch in Oberfeldt’s work arose in 1994, when Trough Foods began its infamous “Garlic Giveaway Sweepstakes.” The premise was simple; people would sign up to be entered for the chance to win a variety of prizes, ranging from five thousand dollars to ownership of a Garlic Pit franchise. An ad for the sweepstakes was to feature Mister Breadsticks going to the home of Trough Foods marketing executive Deborah Minchin. He was intended to kick the door in, break into the house, and ransack it in search of Ms. Minchin. Upon finding her, he was to produce a giant novelty check for a million dollars, hand it to her, and sprint from the house. Unfortunately, the film crew for the commercial was provided with the wrong address. Mister Breadsticks did not knock down the door of 2121 Palm Springs Drive, home of Trough marketing executive Debora Minchin. Rather, he broke into 2112 Palm Springs Drive, home of former actor and firearms enthusiast Chet Slaughter. Seconds after his door was kicked off its hinges, Mister Slaughter had unloaded several magazines worth of ammunition at the film crew, injuring a camera operator and utterly annihilating Mister Breadsticks. In exchange for his silence, Chet Slaughter was given free meals for life at all Trough Foods restaurants.
While the first death of Mister Breadsticks failed to attract the public eye, the same could not be said for the second. In 1998, as part of their “Cyber Sauce,” campaign, Trough Foods opened a franchise that was one part restaurant, one part tech expo, and one part performance art. Dubbed the “E-Restaurant,” it featured animatronic waitstaff that would move about on tracks. It had a desktop computer at each table where diners could type in their order. But most central of all, was the voice-activated parmesan grater.
In the middle of the restaurant stood a centralized grinder, which took in prepared wheels of imitation parmesan cheese, reduced them to powder, and pumped the cheese dust to each table via a pneumatic tube. On the end of each tube was a nozzle that used voice-recognition technology to begin or stop dispensing parmesan cheese-like product onto a customer’s food, around the rim of their Garlic Pit Marinargarita, or directly into their awaiting mouth. On a platform above the main grinding mechanism, an employee fed wheels of cheese-like substance into the machine. To commemorate the franchise’s opening night, Mister Breadsticks took the role of feeding the grinder. All was normal, until he slipped an a puddle of oil left by a wheel of quasi-cheese. The top-heavy design of the Mister Breadsticks suit caused him to fall forward over a railing, ripping his safety harness loose.
The sound of the grinder rending its way through the hard plastic of the Mister Breadsticks costume ripped through the air, drowning out customers’ screams of terror as well as Mister Breadsticks’ own screams as the grinder blades found purchase in his flesh. To make matters worse, the screeching that filled the restaurant activated the parmesan grinder’s emergency release function, causing it to purge its nozzles and unleashing a cascade of cheese-like product, plastic, and human viscera onto the restaurant’s tables and patrons. Despite the efforts of Trough Foods’ marketing department, legal department, and paramilitary death squads, word and footage of the Bread Shredder incident made its way to the local media.
While a scandal surrounding the second death of Mister Breadsticks did erupt, it was short lived. The ensuing wrongful death suit filed by the widow Breadsticks was settled out-of court for an undisclosed amount. Trough Foods has since insisted that the incident was not due to the safety harness snapping from the force of Mister Breadsticks’ fall, but rather was due to the safety harness being improperly secured. Company spokesperson Melinda Fuchs chalked the matter up to “Mascot error.” While Fuchs’ claim has been disputed by fact checkers, this dissent was swept under the rug, and, for a time, the world ignored the corporate tragedy of Mister Breadsticks.
Behind the scenes, however, the cruel hand of misfortune continue to ravage the unlucky mascot. Between 1998 and 2000, six actors fell victim to the seeming curse of the Garlic Pit, with one actor being rendered paraplegic and unable to perform. The other five died, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, syphilis, autoerotic asphyxiation, and mange respectively. These fatalities were easily swept under the rug, however, and Trough Foods began to recover in the court of public opinion.
All of this changed, however, in May of 2001, with the announcement of an upcoming viral ad campaign. Personally written, produced, and directed by Charles Oberfeldt, its intended content was unknown. Oberfeldt refused to have any staff aside from a group of child actors, Mister Breadsticks, and himself in the recording studio. In a revolutionary step, the advertisement was to be done in one take, and livestreamed on the Garlic Pit homepage.
On June 2nd, 2001, the stream began. Viewers saw a heavily-artifacted video of a group of children surrounding a motionless Mister Breadsticks, continually chanting his name. The chanting rose to a fever pitch, whereupon the children fell in on the mascot, and seemingly began to eat him alive. Compressed screams of fear and pain could be heard as the childrens’ tiny fingers and teeth ripped through his outer carapace, consuming him like a swarm of piranhas. The advertisement immediately cut to black, and the livestream was terminated. While the commercial was considered too disturbing for television, internet commentators praised its artful, found-footage camera work and bold narrative direction.
These praises quickly turned to condemnation, however, when it was discovered that the current incarnation of Mister Breadsticks had been reported missing. As the prior deaths of the Garlic Pit’s mascot were discovered, concerns were raised about the recent ad campaign. Had Mister Breadsticks actually been devoured alive by a throng of ravenous children? It seemed unlikely, but not impossible. Trough Foods’ official response on the matter did little to quell suspicion. They noted, quote, “as Mister Breadsticks went missing two weeks before the livestream, the children could not have been the ones to render him unto the great beyond.” The public was perturbed, and at long last, the Garlic Pit was unable to shake off the scorn heaped upon it.
Outcry against the Garlic Pit targeted the continued use of their disconcerting, death-prone mascot. An op-ed “Breadsticks and BS,” was published in the New York Times, decrying the Garlic Pit’s policy of subsuming human identity into a corporate mascot that had become synonymous with painful demise. The Screen Actor’s Guild issued a formal condemnation of the Garlic Pit, demanding an investigation into why the Mister Breadsticks role had such a high fatality rate.
The Garlic Pit’s immunity to the effects of bad publicity was seemingly waning. The restaurant’s profits took a nosedive in 2001, with Trough Foods’ stock plummeting even faster than the rest of the bearish market of the Dot Com era. Across the nation, Garlic Pit restaurants shuttered their doors, along with other Trough restaurants, such as the Burger Tower, “Petey’s,” and the First Church of Burritos.
Charles Oberfeldt steadfastly refused to steer away from his vision, demanding that, among other things, all marketing decisions for the Garlic Pit be made by him. In a seventy-page manifesto that Oberfeldt sent to the Trough Foods Board of Directors, he allegedly told investors, “Mister Breadsticks stays! Mister Breadsticks stays! I will kill you with a fork! Mister Breadsticks Stays!”
Oberfeldt’s sudden decline in mental stability worried Trough Foods’ investors, and the possibility of replacing him as CEO was floated at several meetings. In an effort to save his position, Oberfeldt made several concessions, including a two-year hold on Mister Breadsticks making any visible appearances in Garlic Pit marketing material.
In accordance with the letter, if not the spirit, of Oberfeldt’s compromise, a “Find Mister Breadsticks” ad campaign was run between July of 2001 and March of 2004. These ads featured long, stationary shots of seemingly-lifeless backgrounds, coupled with the phrase “Mister Breadsticks can see you. Can you see him?” While Garlic Pit’s marketing department has insisted that the mascot was not present in any of these ads, countless Youtube channels claim otherwise, using flickers of light or claims of subliminal messaging to contend that the unlucky mascot was, in fact, in each commercial, watching from the shadows.
In May 2004, it was announced that Trough Foods would begin phase 2 of the “Find Mister Breadsticks” campaign. The announcement stated that auditions for the role of Mister Breadsticks would be held at the convention center in Santa Triste, California. Despite, or perhaps because, of the role’s notoriety, the turnout for this campaign was good; nearly a thousand would-be mascots showed up, dreaming of being the next face of the Garlic Pit.
The process was grueling. With hundreds of applicants waiting for their turn, each audition lasting five minutes, and Charles Oberfeldt insisting that he be the one to vet each performance, the ordeal was slated to take nearly two weeks. On May 31st, 2004, the would-be mascots began to give their performances.
None of them satisfied Charles Oberfeldt. As prospective mascot after prospective mascot auditioned and were denied, the Trough Foods CEO grew angrier and angrier. After the thirtieth performance, a song-and-dance number about lasagna, Oberfeldt unleashed a volley of obscenity that drove the actor to tears. After the seventh performance on day three, he needed to be restrained by on-site security after witnessing a performer in Mister Breadsticks merchandise read the phone book. At the beginning of day 4, Oberfeldt threw a folding chair at a performer who attempted to recreate the “Notorious B.R.E.A.D.” incident. After the three-hundred fifty-second mascot’s audition, which featured an off-key performance of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” the Trough Foods CEO wordlessly stood up and walked out of the room.
Security footage recovered from the audition site shows Oberfeldt walking back into the room 15 minutes later, wearing the Mister Breadsticks outfit. He had strapped an explosive vest around the costume’s plastic shell. Survivors of the incident claim that Oberfeldt had shouted, “This is Mister Breadsticks! I am Mister Breadsticks!” before launching into what appeared to be his own audition, a one-man performance of “Death of a Salesman.” During the first act, a number of Oberfeldt’s hostages can be seen on footage, running towards the audition site doors, only to find them locked. The remainder stood in place, seemingly enraptured by the performance. None of Oberfeldt’s audience responded to their fellows’ panic or attempts by the Santa Triste Police Department to negotiate with the deranged CEO. Three hours later, the performance concluded, and Charles Oberfeldt returned to his seat at the judge’s table, screaming “Do that!” at the once-again-terrified crowd.
The next to audition after Charles Oberfeldt was Jeffery Hansen, who had come with his face temporarily tattooed to look like that of Mister Breadsticks. Trembling and on the verge of tears, Hansen began to recite the lines of the assigned play. After five minutes of the performance had passed, Oberfeldt slammed his hand to the table, pointed at Hansen, and appeared to say something. What it was, we’ll never know. As Charles Oberfeldt aimed his finger at the man, he inadvertently let go of the dead man’s switch controlling his vest.
The explosion ripped the rest of the Santa Triste Convention center to shreds, wiping out all of the would-be incarnations of Mister Breadsticks. Of the ninety-eight people there, only six people, workers who had holed up in a custodial closet, survived. Jessica Li, an intern and business student at Valle Valley Community College, reported being guided from the closet by a SWAT team, who had managed to breach the doors and comb the area for survivors after the explosion had gone off. In an interview with the Santa Triste Tribune, she reported that as she stumbled through the carnage, all that she could focus on was image after image of Mister Breadsticks’ face staring back at her from the scorched costumes.
Following Charles Oberfeldt’s suicide bombing, the myriad wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Trough Foods, and the federal investigation of both the Oberfeldt and his company, a series of shocking discoveries were revealed. The Garlic Pit was deeper in the red than the rest of Trough Foods management had thought. Charles Oberfeldt had been covertly diverting funds from other divisions of the company to begin a project he had called “Operation Chiesa.” Oberfeldt’s hard drive was filled with drawings and photoshops of Mister Breadsticks, which appeared to have been a mixture of religious imagery, pornography, and religious pornography.
In response to the news, The Garlic Pit pulled all advertisements for the remainder of the fiscal year. In 2005, they announced that the restaurant’s new mascot would be Garlic Pit Gilbert, a plain-looking man in a button-down shirt.
Mister Breadsticks had died for the last time.
What has happened since then?
Jessica Li dropped out of college shortly after Mister Breadsticks’ suicide bombing. After a stint in rehab following a drunk-driving incident, she and fellow survivor Roger Petra cowrote the book You Can’t Run From Pasta Fun: Recovery After the Breadsticks Bombing. You Can’t Run topped the New York Times bestseller list from April to June of 2007.
Trough Foods has continued to thrive in Oberfeldt’s absence, having expanded its reach to a global scale and opening three new chains: Blackbeard’s, a family-themed seafood restaurant, Khan’s, a midscale Mongolian barbecue chain, and Ripper’s Roadhouse, a post-ironic low-scale bar and grill where the waiters are legally allowed to threaten customers with a shiv.
Charles Oberfeldt is survived by his sons, Kurt and Kyle, who, respectively, run Jima, a multi-million dollar startup billing itself as “The Tinder of land sales” and Big Willy’s Footlongs, a hot-dog truck that has been banned in three states.
“Who killed Mr. Breadsticks?” Perhaps it was Mr. Breadsticks himself. Perhaps it was trough foods. Perhaps it was society. But one thing is certain. It was Oberfeldt, guys. Charles Oberfeldt killed Mister Breadsticks.
This has been Liminal Criminals. I’m Sam Putnam.
I’ll see you next time, and remember: they know where you live.