Michigan bakeries share social model for success

TRAVERSE CITY / DETROIT – Two thriving bakeries, one in Traverse City the other in Detroit's Cass Corridor, are worlds away in terms of who they serve, yet they use similar recipes to measure their success.

The main ingredient is a mindset that has given rise to a movement known in Michigan as the Great Lakes Bioneers. According to the website of the Detroit chapter, Bioneers comprise "a network of visionary innovators working to build a sustainable, positive and creative future for the web of life."

The owners of both bakeries share the Bioneers' belief that their businesses can be socially responsible and "contribute practical solutions to restoring communities and the environment."

In Traverse City, Gerard Grabowski and Jan Shireman of the family-owned, organic Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery cater to a growing base of retail customers-comprised of locals, tourists and seasonal homeowners-in addition to wholesale accounts at their new location at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

"Demand is 'so there' for Traverse City," Grabowski said. "There is more awareness of good, local food-and especially food they can trust.

"People are beginning to understand that…it's directly connected to health and how they feel, and it's connected to local farms."

Jackie Victor and Ann Perrault of Detroit's Avalon International Breads serve organic baked goods to inner-city residents and a daytime crowd of commuting suburbanites, Wayne State University staff and students.

"We looked at the problem of poverty and the depopulation of Detroit," Victor said. "We came up with a solution. If we created a business which served as a hearth for the community, that does 'good' and also does well, maybe we could provide a spark of inspiration to regenerate part of the neighborhood."

In 10 years since opening its doors, Avalon inspired six new area businesses-all stores independently owned by city residents-and also did well themselves. The bakery's revenues from wholesale and retail sales have increased eight to ten percent annually. The plan is to move to a larger facility "within sniffing distance" of the present operation by the holidays.

Part of Avalon's recipe for doing 'good' comes from 14-year-old Pleasanton. Grabowski said the Avalon owners "shaped their first loaves" at Pleasanton while creating a business plan and before continuing their bread education at Stone House Bread in Leland. Victor said she and Perrault are inspired by, and are friends with, Grabowski and Shireman, whom they met at activist events.

From using and selling organic and local products to paying employees a "living wage" with benefits (including health care), to supporting the community with their "hearth" and nonprofit financial-Avalon is "aspiring to inspire."

Both Pleasanton and Avalon share a passion for organic and locally-grown ingredients. Buying organic promotes healthy growing practices, buying locally helps area farmers and reduces transportation and fuel costs, and baking in wood-fired brick ovens, instead of gas, uses a renewable resource.

Each bakery has an open production kitchen that Grabowski describes as a "living educational tool," allowing customers to observe how bread is made. Victor said that some of Avalon's young visitors see food prepared for the first time. Pleasanton serves as an "incubator kitchen" for others preparing healthy foods for nonprofits and fundraisers.

In fact, Pleasanton has supplied bread for Great Lakes Bioneers conferences held annually at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

In its sixth year, the conference has grown from 250 to "well over 500" attendees, according to Sarna Salzman, executive director of SEEDS, a conference co-host. The TC event is one of many Bioneers' conferences held simultaneously across the country. Local workshops are combined with live satellite feed from plenary sessions at the national conference in San Rafael, Calif.

The Traverse City conference founders Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck, co-owners of Neahtawanta Inn and co-directors of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center on Old Mission Peninsula, wanted to bring the energy they had experienced at a national conference to Traverse City.

A group of Detroit-area residents who attended the Traverse City conferences consulted with Van Vleck and organized an event in their hometown three years ago.

"Our urban area has an enormous need for sustainable solutions…the kind that Bioneers think about, not just academic or business," said Gloria Rivera, a member of the Sister Service of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe and the Detroit conference coordinator.

She added that Bioneers provide practical solutions, such as collaborating with other nonprofits to teach Detroit's inner-city poor how to grow some of their own food.

"The great thing about Bioneers is that there are numerous pathways in-whether you're a lawyer, a doctor, a school teacher, an artist, a biologist, a blogger, whatever," Salzman said. "It's an incredible, diverse, multi-disciplinary group."

For more about the Bioneers' Oct. 19-21 conferences, visit www.bioneers.org.