Michigan Bread’s tagline says it all: “It’s not just bread … it’s family.” When Spiros Assimacopoulos and his partners started Michigan Bread in Taylor, MI, nine years ago, he did it not only with his father’s blessing but also with his values.
“He had a blank check from me, and he still does,” said George Assimacopoulos, founder of Assimacopoulos Bakery Distributors that would eventually become Michigan Bread.
George Assimacopoulos built his bakery distribution business on hard work, good customer service and care for his employees, which eventually included his sons and business partners, Spiros Assimacopoulos, president and CEO, and Andy Assimacopoulos, now vice-president at Michigan Bread. After starting a wholesale bakery in 2010 with zero baking experience, Spiros Assimacopoulos implemented those values but also relied on the support and grace of his family and their long-standing restaurant customers as he figured out the new business. He’s reaped the rewards of that support and passed it onto his employees.
“We strive to operate like a high-functioning family,” he said. “We’re a group of hard-working people. One of our values is we give each other the benefit of the doubt. That leads to respect for each other. That’s what we work toward.”
That investment in Michigan Bread’s employees and a commitment to traditional baking methods using natural fermentation has Michigan Bread hitting its stride, and the team at Michigan Bread doesn’t see things slowing down soon.
In 1969, George Assimacopoulos immigrated to the US from Greece. After settling down with his wife, Beverly, in Detroit, he found himself working for a distributor and thinking, “I could do this on my own.” With his Plymouth Duster and one vendor, George began selling bread to local independently owned Greek restaurants around Detroit. From there Assimacopoulos Bakery Distributors was born.
Both of George Assimacopoulos’s sons resisted the idea of joining their father’s business after finishing college. But despite Spiros Assimacopoulos’ degree in public relations, one thing became clear as he interviewed for jobs and tried to find a career path: He wanted his own business; he didn’t want to build a corporate career.
“I found myself more interested in executing a business than using my degree to write news stories about it,” he said. And then there was the family draw as well. “Getting up every morning and going to work with your family name on the side of the truck — there’s value in that,” he added. “That’s something you can believe in.”
It’s that personal attachment to which George Assimacopoulos attributes the company’s success. “We’re family,” he said. “We work hard, and we care for each other. We use our brains, and we provide good service to our customers. I still have some of the same customers after 47 years.”
Since Spiros Assimacopoulos and Andy Assimacopoulos joined the business in 1997, Assimacopoulos Bakery Distributors grew though the market began to shift. The economy was strong, but competition heated up with such a low barrier to entry into the distribution business. In 2006, after a few conversations with friendly competitor Mike Sanfilippo at Supreme Sales & Service, the two companies merged to become Assimacopoulos Supreme Bakery Distributors (ASB). The new company’s customer base was further diversified and allowed George Assimacopoulos and Mr. Sanfilippo to focus on their respective strengths within the operation.
As the distribution market changed, Spiros Assimacopoulos wanted more for the business. “I wasn’t satisfied with just a transactional business,” he said. “Making bread is a wonderful thing. You’re feeding people and, hopefully, helping them enjoy their day a little more. I saw value in making our own bread, owning a brand and making the products that we wanted to sell.”
An opportunity came when one of their vendors, Baguette Bakery, began to struggle, and the owner decided to exit the business. The team decided to take the plunge into baking and purchased the business. “Doc was the first baker in the market to make brioche buns,” Spiros Assimacopoulos said. “We didn’t want to lose his high-quality product line, and we wanted to bake, so it was a perfect opportunity.”
In 2010, Spiros Assimacopoulos opened Michigan Bread with ASB as its distribution department.
Initially, annual revenue at Michigan Bread was only $250,000 with a team of three people. The initial challenge was building a staff. “We couldn’t find anyone with baking experience,” said Spiros Assimacopoulos, who would start baking at 7 p.m. and end at 5 a.m. He would sleep until noon and then spend the afternoon working the distribution side. After a quick break to have dinner with his family, he would return to the bakery to do it all over again. That was the first seven months.
“Every day in baking is like getting on a roller coaster in the morning and riding it until it’s time to go home,” Spiros Assimacopoulos said. “Even to this day, we are still experiencing on-the-job training. Owning a bakery is a whole new world of responsibility, effort and involvement compared to the distribution model.”
To help with the learning curve, Spiros Assimacopoulos took every educational opportunity that came his way. He completed the AIB International online baking course and attended four seminars in Manhattan, KS. He also turned to vendors for education, including seminars at King Arthur Flour, the French Pastry School in Chicago and The San Francisco Baking Institute. And he toured a lot of bakeries. “Despite how competitive this industry can be, most bakers are very gracious and are willing to share ideas from their operations,” he said.
Michigan Bread applies that type of on-the-job training to its staff of 160 employees today. Like every bakery in the US, that initial struggle to find skilled bakers persisted at Michigan Bread, so the team has invested in people, setting them on paths to become career bakers.
The bakery’s production manager, Greg Prokop, started out by applying egg wash on brioche buns. Cheikh Dabo began as baking assistant before becoming head baker and now production planner. Both men were some of the company’s first hires. “We found a lot of excellent people along the way,” Spiros Assimacopoulos said. “We hired people with no baking skills but who put their heart into it, and we trained them. They are responsible for our success today.”
Michigan Bread is currently in the process of formalizing and standardizing that education process. With each career advancement an employee makes, Michigan Bread will invest in that person’s training, whether that be on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), online AIB classes, supplier seminars, or leadership and management training when applicable.
Having strong relationships with distribution customers helped provide built-in business for Michigan Bread, and those customers were willing to stick with the team as they worked out the kinks in quality and process.
The bread itself started out reflecting what Baguette Bakery was already doing well — brioche, baguettes and Italian bread. Its product line now includes traditional buns and rolls, sandwich breads, ciabatta, and the company’s Detroit line of breads: 3-lb hearth-baked sandwich loaves, developed to serve bar-and-grill customers.
Spiros Assimacopoulos credits much of the bakery’s success to its commitment to natural fermentation. Michigan Bread products start with poolish, sourdough or biga that are fermented 18 to 24 hours before use. Michigan Bread is loyal to this process, even though it’s not the most efficient style of production.
This dedication has paid off, however, as the business has grown to annual revenue of more than $10 million.
“We are proud of what we have accomplished for a group of guys who didn’t know what they’re doing,” Spiros Assimacopoulos said. “Because of that growth, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves and our process a number of times. We have a lot of opportunity for growth going forward, and in many ways, we feel like we’re just getting started.”
This article is an excerpt from the October 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Michigan Bread, click here.