Ann Perrault, co-owner and CEO of Avalon International Breads, never dreamed she would turn a dilapidated industrial building in Detroit into a state-of-the-art bakery to be called Avalon City Ovens.
“Not in a million years,” she said when talking about the first phase of her $2.2 million expansion project. The new 50,000-square-foot production facility is scheduled to open this month at 6555 East Forrest. “But if you think about it and think about the resources in Detroit, and the large vacant buildings, it does make sense that this is the direction we took.”
The warehouse was purchased at the 2010 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction and is funded by a loan that closed in early October. “I never would have thought of doing this. It was an exciting process to actually go and do it,” said Perrault, adding that a few of her customers turned her on to the idea. “I am getting the space for a lot less than what it’s worth because the owner hasn’t paid the taxes. That’s kind of a hard situation. I got really lucky.”
Avalon now employs more than 50 people. Perrault is in the process of hiring 100 additional bakers, drivers, sales and customer service workers to continue Avalon’s growth in the heart of the city.
According to a recent press release, the project comes not long after Avalon opened its second retail location last summer known as the Eat Well, Do Good Cafe in the West Grand Boulevard building of Henry Ford Hospital. “The quick success of this store and growing demand for Avalon products in suburban Detroit and Ann Arbor prompted the expansion,” she said.
“The Michigan Economic Development Corporation under Mike Finney wanted to jump start economic growth and support businesses dedicated to employing people, particularly from urban communities,” said Don Snider, senior vice president, Urban Economic Development for MEDC. “Avalon is a great example of how our collaborative resources with local partners can lead to growth that benefits all of metropolitan Detroit.”
The project involves a complicated partnership with Invest Detroit, Whole Foods, the Small Business Administration and Main Street Bank. “I asked them to be a part of the business in 2008. It was formally done in 2010. It came with a lot of negotiations around how that was going to happen. This was a good way to secure the wholesale end of the business,” she said.
The new location will service the artisan bakery’s growing wholesale and retail customers. Avalon breads can be purchased at grocery stores like Whole Foods, Holiday, and Plum markets. Restaurants that offer Avalon products are Small Plates in Detroit, Frittata in Clawson, Bastone in Royal Oak, and the Jolly Pumpkin in Ann Arbor, to name a few.
The original 2,000-square-foot production and retail flagship store was established in 1997 by Perrault with her partner, Jackie Victor. Located at 422 W. Willis in the Cass Corridor, Avalon became the biggest organic bread flour purchaser in Michigan, purchasing over 9,000 pounds of organic, milled grains weekly from hard-working, organic wheat farmers.
Ann Perrault with business partner Jackie Victor. Photo courtesy Avalon Bread
“We use 100 percent organic ingredients in everything we make. All of our flour is milled in Kansas,” said Perrault. This is part of Avalon’s Triple Bottom Line – earth, community, and employees. This Buddhist principle of “right livelihood” was introduced by Geri Larkin, Zen priest, corporate management consultant and author of Building a Business the Zen Way.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs seek advice and guidance from Perrault as a result of her success. At Avalon City Ovens, Perrault will continue to offer her customers more of their local marketplace favorites from Garden Works in Ann Arbor, Apple Schram in Lansing, St. Laurent Bros Peanut Butter, Chartreuse Organic Herbal Tea in Trenton, and more. But she hopes to support some of the Detroit companies starting to spring up. “I’d like to help smaller, innovative companies to start up and do some things for them to boost them to the next level more quickly,” she said.
Like 25-year-old Nailah Ellis, owner of the four-year-old beverage company Ellis Island Tea available for purchase at Avalon. The tea, which is sold in almost 20 grocery stores and restaurants throughout Southeastern Michigan, is made with a unique blend of herbs, 100 percent natural extracts, no high fructose corn syrup or yellow 5.
“Nobody wanted to be the first one to carry my product. Ann is very big on supporting local and was willing to take that risk. She gave me a shot and opened a lot of doors for me,” said Ellis, who is looking to rent space at Avalon City Ovens. “She is an angel on earth and my business mentor. She is not one of those people who keeps her experience a secret. She shares everything, she is one of her word, she is knowledgeable, and the bakery thrives the way it does because of Ann. I name drop her anytime I’m trying to get a new account or close on a deal. Her name is golden.”
Perhaps it’s the advice Perrault provides. She tells them what Larkin told her. “Don’t pay a rent that will make you stay up at night. Don’t be open too much when you first start because you’ll already be overwhelmed. Never grow more than 20 percent, which I take to heart. As you get larger, you have to be really careful. At any point, one section of business can decide they don’t want to do business or want to do business with someone else,” she said.
Perrault and her staff have been growing about 20 percent since 2003. “The biggest growth margin here has been the sweet department,” she said. Her mother had a pie business when she was a kid. “I happen to have a mother who’s one of the best bakers I know. Her chocolate cake, cheesecakes, fruit cakes, Yule logs, and so many more products we bake together will be introduced soon. We’re gearing ourselves toward a 25 percent increase within the first year at the new place. As we very modestly move forward, we’re taking on the true aspects of training individuals to grow at that rate and training to keep the hands in the mixing,” she said.
The mixing involves hand-stirring the “mother” or “starter,” which is the fermenting of flour and water to create yeast by feeding the mixture more water and flour three times a day until it doubles in volume within 24 hours. It’s combined with other ingredients and baked into bread in Avalon’s 10,000-pound steam-injected oven. Perrault will continue this Old World style of bread making that Avalon customers are accustomed to.
“Most bakeries that are big-time are automating everything. To keep people working, we will continue to handcraft our bakery products,” she said, adding that as a recipe developer, she doesn’t have the pleasure of jumping on the line like she used to. As for her partner, Victor, she is still a partner in the business, but primarily takes care of their 12-year-old daughter Rafaella and their seven-year-old son Arie. “It’s nice for us, for any couple, that one of the parents can be with the children,” said Perrault.
Her staff is also a big part of Perrault’s family. “They definitely made it happen. They’re the people that create that scone that melts in your mouth, the hard-crusted bread, the chocolate chip sea salt cookies that people line up outside the door for,” she said.
“We’re a company that can take somebody in and train them. It would be nice if he or she lived in the city or is willing to relocate. They should be green oriented. That way they know a little bit about or have the incentive to recycle, which is near and dear to us. A culinary background and a good palate are helpful, but the number one focus for us is to find people who want to work and enjoy working,” she said.
For 29-year-old Kyresha LeFever, working at Avalon has opened her eyes in many ways. “It’s helped me form new relationships in working in my own community to helping me understand the values of composting and recycling. It’s been quite an experience these past five years,” said LeFever, Avalon’s Human Resources Manager and a graduate of Wayne State University’s Business School.
“Working with Ann has been great. She has a mind that runs a mile a minute and is very business savvy in her own way. It feels good to work for someone that has a great sense of business,” she said. “And it’s a breath of fresh air to work for someone that plays such a major role in the LGBT community. There is no hiding here. I am openly gay and around here that is OK. At Avalon, you can be yourself, gay or straight. The company does not want you to lose your sense of self.”
Avalon has plans to further expand its Midtown presence in 2013. “We’ve been over capacity for quite some time, at least since 2008,” said Perrault about moving the storefront from its existing space on Willis to a newer space on West Canfield Street next to the Traffic Jam & Snug. That relocation is set to move forward next spring after the Avalon City Ovens project is complete.
“We’ve come to the end of this location, but it’s been amazing. I want to say thank you to my customers who probably dealt with more than they’ve wanted to deal with from a lack of space and parking to having to wait patiently as we’ve had to fit everything into one oven for all these years,” said Perrault. “Now, they can really look to see the handcrafted artisan product turn into something special when it gets the correct weight, proof time and bake time. It’s gonna’ be just rockin’…those air bubbles and hard crust…it will develop into a product we can really be proud of.”