PITTSBURGH — Mediterra Bakehouse produces about 15,000 loaves daily in its custom-built, steam-injected stone hearth ovens at its headquarters in Pittsburgh, company owner Nick Ambeliotis said. Another 5,000 loaves are baked every day in its Phoenix facility, which is now in its fifth year of operation.
But size alone doesn’t determine whether or not a bakery is “artisan,” Mr. Ambeliotis said.
“I feel artisan is defined in the process, not the volume,” Mr. Ambeliotis said. “We currently use seven different starters, some as old as 50 years and fed daily by hand from our staff.”
Machines help in the movement of doughs and a few other tasks at Mediterra.
“There is amazing technology in the field to handle high hydration doughs,” Mr. Ambeliotis said. “We love Koenig for make-up, and Empire for ovens.”
But for the most part, Mediterra’s production is done by hand, with the exception of its buns.
“You use techniques to make the day flow easier such as bowl lifts,” he said. “We also use teams of people to perform various functions, all of which are very important. There may be four people preparing the ingredients to mix, then our mixers actually perform the function. The process is automated and streamlined by staff to segregate duties.”
In addition to the baking process, determining whether something is artisan or not also must take into consideration the ingredients used, Mr. Ambeliotis said.
“Slow mixing with cold water, very little or no yeast, slow fermentation — techniques that are not used by many,” he noted. “The basic fundamental is that you must always hand shape, ferment in small batches and not compromise the process.”
There’s a lot of bad bread being sold these days, Mr. Ambeliotis said. Mediterra and other artisan bakers are working hard to differentiate themselves from the mass of commercial bakers, to make sure they’re not painted with the same brush.
“We are not a part of that scene,” he said. “We grow our own heritage wheat organically, we use no conditioners or extenders. We slow-ferment everything and use ingredients such as raw honey as opposed to sugar or malt. We mill our own flour — it makes a huge difference.”
With the exception of “a few lean recession years,” Mediterra’s sales have increased an average of 20% each of the past 16 years, Mr. Ambeliotis said. And it doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Mediterra is just beginning,” he said. “We have so much growth ahead of us.”
As it grows, Mediterra will not sacrifice its commitment to quality, said Anthony Ambeliotis, Nick’s son and Mediterra’s production manager.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the best bread in the country while continuing to grow and increase production,” Anthony Ambeliotis said. “Growing while staying consistent is the hardest part.”
One key, he said, is to know at what point automation begins to compromise quality. Increased use of some pieces of equipment — mixers with bowl lifts, automatic oven loaders, dough dividers, long molders for longer loaves, divider rounders — could help Mediterra grow and still be artisan, Anthony Ambeliotis said.
But for the things that still need to be done by hand, you need the right people.
“Our biggest asset to our growth is our employees,” he said. “Hiring better, more hard-working employees, giving them the proper environment and adequate training in order to facilitate our growth.”
Nick Ambeliotis expects similarly strong growth industry-wide. And even when small bakers choose to remain small, their success raises all boats, with growth-minded companies like Mediterra happy to meet growing demand.
“The increase in small artisan bakers is a great phenomenon,” he said. “They help us spread the word. The more the better. Elevating the bread scene through small bakers is necessary. It helps me step in and actually fill the need they create for us. If awareness is increased and larger venues recognize this, guess who they’re calling?”
One key to the company’s growth has been its ability to know its customer base — and vice versa.
“Our customer is a very defined customer and we search each other out,” he said. “It’s not really up to us to convince a customer they need us — you either know that or you don’t. We’ll never be the world’s answer to inexpensive bread, nor do we want to be.”
Whole Foods Market is an example of a Mediterra customer that knows exactly what it wants.
“(They’re) a focused customer concentrated on the quality aspect,” he said.
At most grocery chains, the view from upper management is quite different from the one at store level, he said. The brass want things to be seamless and easy, but with artisan bread, that’s not usually possible, he said.
“Education and being open to education is huge,” Nick Ambeliotis said. “For instance, it’s easy to carry 20 great olive oils, but try that with artisan one-day bread. It’s very difficult if you’re not committed.”
The retailers who succeed with their instore artisan bread programs are the ones who realize that education and staff level commitment are mandatory for success, Nick Ambeliotis said. Other than that, the “basics” of merchandising and marketing product at the grocery store level include sampling and “communicating the larger picture” of telling consumers about the farmer, miller and baker whose efforts produced the loaf of bread they hold in their hands.
Soon, Nick Ambeliotis said, Mediterra will be able to test its own retail marketing theories on itself.“Our next venture will be our own retail stores to educate the consumer further within our market reach,” he said.