Pepperidge Farm will shut down its Aiken bakery that employs 115 people by early next year. Workers learned about the decision during a meeting early Thursday morning.

Management suspended operations at the facility for the day following the gathering and let many employees go home, but the bakery was scheduled to be back up and running again on Friday morning.

“We saw that volume was declining, but people didn’t actually suspect, I suppose, that it was going to come to this point,” said Jennifer Lannom, the bakery’s human resources and safety manager.

Pepperidge Farm plans to close the facility in phases, starting in September. Operations are scheduled to end by March 2014.

According to a Pepperidge Farm press release issued Thursday, shutting down the Aiken bakery is part of a program to improve the utilization of the company’s manufacturing network.

“The bakery industry in the United States is becoming increasingly consolidated and competitive,” said Bill Livingstone, Pepperidge Farm’s senior vice president of supply chain and operations. “In order to continue to grow and flourish, Pepperidge Farm needs to be innovative and agile, with the most cost-effective manufacturing facilities.

“We recently reviewed our operations and identified excess capacity in our bakery network,” he continued. “As a result, we evaluated a number of different options to address this. We made the difficult decision to close our plant in Aiken. It is a very good bakery with great people, but it has limited production capabilities, and we’ve recently discontinued a product (Goldfish Bread) that accounted for a significant amount of its volume.”

Pepperidge Farm’s local bakery, which opened in 1976, is located on Windham Boulevard in the Verenes Industrial Park. The company will shift the majority of the bread made in Aiken to its bakery in Lakeland, Fla.

“It was difficult news for everyone here, but people actually handled it very well,” Lannom said. “The team was very reassured by hearing all the efforts the company is working on to help them over the coming months. One individual who has been with the company for 30 years stood up and said he just wanted to commend everyone in the group for treating everybody with respect and honor. He also said he was proud to work for the company. People actually clapped at the end.”

Pepperidge Farm’s press release about the closing revealed that the company will offer employees a comprehensive support package that includes compensation that recognizes their commitment and service; access to employment specialists who can provide advice on preparing resumes and job interview techniques; and meetings with financial advisers. Pepperidge Farm also will organize job fairs, where companies looking to recruit workers can meet employees.

Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken visited the Pepperidge Farm bakery after learning about the closing in a phone call from Kelly Johnston, vice president of government affairs at Campbell Soup Company. Campbell Soup owns Pepperidge Farm.

“It was a tearful morning,” Taylor said.

Taylor also contacted S.C. Secretary of Commerce Robert M. Hitt III.

“He immediately called into action what he calls his triage team,” Taylor said. “They will be contacting the Pepperidge Farm folks, and they are going to be working with them to help in whatever way they can with the employment issue. They also will work to repurpose the facility so it will be put to good use.

“One of the things that I’m doing immediately,” Taylor added, “is getting with the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce and helping arrange for them to come in and work with individual employees to help them if they want to find jobs.”

Thirty-nine of the local Pepperidge Farm bakery employees will qualify for retirement benefits by the time the bakery closes, according to Anna Burr, the company’s director of communications.

“We’ve had so much success in economic development in Aiken that this is, in fact, a small setback in the scheme of things,” Taylor said. “We don’t like to see it happen, but it’s business and it’s understandable. This is a big company consolidating operations. It has nothing to do with the skill of the workforce in Aiken or Aiken’s environment and its tax incentives.”

Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young was sad to hear about the bakery’s scheduled shutdown.

“We hate to lose any company. That has been one of our good corporate citizens for a long time, and we hate to see people lose their jobs,” he said. “I wish they would reconsider, but I don’t know all the ramifications. We’re creating jobs in Aiken County on one hand and losing them on the other, but we’ll continue to move ahead to make Aiken County great.”

Pepperidge Farm operates eight bakeries across the country in addition to the one in Aiken, and employs more than 4,000 people. Its most popular products include Sausalito and Milano cookies, Goldfish crackers and Baked Naturals crackers. The company produces more than 50 varieties of fresh-baked breads.