Bread maker rises from ashes after devastating fire

Community came together to support  bakery, helped raise thousands to rebuild

By Ursula Zerilli
Kalamazoo Gazette

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — If there is one thing Sarkozy bakers have in common — other than yellow shirts reading “I’m a Sarkozy baker” — it’s a passion for baking bread.

It’s about the way the living yeast works, the effect of each knead, the moxie of the mixer, they say. It’s all about the bread.

“Bread is cosmic,” baker Nate Haroldson told the Kalamazoo Gazette with a laugh. “It’s hard to explain when you understand a loaf of bread in that way. The bread needs you and you knead the bread.”

It was one year ago, on Feb. 25, 2012, that fire tore through the 120-year-old building at 335 N. Burdick St. that had housed Sarkozy Bakery for 34 years. Owner Judy Sarkozy, 71, was on the scene that day, never imagining the journey she and her employees would take in the year that followed.

Out of the ashes came an outpouring of support from the community, insistence that Kalamazoo couldn’t do without the longtime institution and encouragement for Sarkozy and her staff to rebuild.

When the bakery does reopen in its new location on East Michigan Avenue this year, Sarkozy, Haroldson, Mike Root, Chris VanDenBerg and Courtney Davis will have more than just passion for bread in common. They’ll all be owners of the bakery that has meant so much to so many in the community.

“Once we realized the talents and skills we have here, it made sense and I can’t do it alone this time,” Sarkozy said.

The past year has been a roller-coaster ride for Sarkozy and her staff, who never expected the series of events that changed their lives and hearts. Investigators said the fire that destroyed the 120-year-old building started in the old furnace in the basement. They declared the building a total loss.

For the bakers, the fire was a wake-up call. Aside from realizing how much they loved their jobs and bread, they also learned a heart-warming lesson about community.

“I thought it was over when that fire happened,” said 28-year-old VanDenBerg, who didn’t think twice about quitting his previous job after interviewing with Sarkozy about three years ago. “I remember my first day, I started mixing the bread and something clicked. Since then, my passion for yeast and fermentation has flourished.”

For Haroldson, 33, the fire came shortly after he realized that baking was his true passion.

“Boom — it was taken from me by force. Now what?” Haroldson said. “But there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to do this and make this happen. The community support really hits home. Sometimes you wonder if what you were doing every day made a huge difference. Does it matter so much? It really does.”

There was doubt, however, in Sarkozy’s mind. It took her months to commit to reopening the bakery, especially when she discovered it would cost $600,000 and require extensive fundraising to reopen her bakery, which originally cost $11,000 to set up. Plus, opening a new bakery is a huge responsibility.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but in the down part, the community held us in their arms, there’s no question about it,” she said. “It was amazing to see everyone from every walk of life support us — from someone putting $2 in my hand one day to a huge concert that the local musicians put on. Little kids are sending us birthday money. Who can turn that down?”

It was only a few weeks after the fire when VanDenBerg started making dough at home for the first time. Davis, Root and Haroldson did the same thing. They missed the bread.

When Sarkozy’s accountants and lawyers told her it would be best to have administrative details ironed out before they reopened, she decided she wanted to share ownership with her staff. She invited her fellow bakers a seat at the table when it came time to talk about risk and equity. They accepted.

“We always had rotating jobs so you can do everything,” Haroldson said. “If you bake good bread, you can sell. It going to be a completely different job and it’s going to be easier physically and more efficient since we will have better equipment.”

During the past year, they put their heads together to reconstruct all of their recipes and to relearn everything they could about bread and business. Root has brought the company into the 21st century by building a new website. They have all learned more than they anticipated about fundraising.

In September, Sarkozy signed a 10.5-year lease to re-open the bakery in a 4,800 square-foot space on the ground level of 350 E. Michigan Avenue in the Columbia Plaza building, at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Pitcher Street.

To start, the new bakery will offer the same breads and pastries, but they will be offering lighter lunch-time options, such as sandwiches and pizza. Sarkozy says the building will be as eco-friendly as possible with more efficient and tech-savvy equipment.

She said financial setbacks have postponed renovations, which were previously slated to be finished by now. Through “Raise the Dough” fundraisers, such as the First Kalamazoo Bread Fest, they have raised about $80,000. She said they have a few more fundraisers in the pipeline, and she hopes to raise a total of $100,000 before they reopen, likely by June or July.

“We are missing a whole lot of money, so we’re working with Keystone Bank to put together a financial package,” Sarkozy said. “The uncertainty has been difficult, but we can’t do anything until we have the financial package together. Some days it feels terrifying, but that is balanced by the community response, which was beautiful and supportive.”

C. Mac Waldorf, co-owner of the 350 E. Michigan Ave. office and commercial building, and partners picking up the cost of renovating the space. The bakery is expected to repay those costs through the term of its lease.

The bakers have discussed hiring one more person to help run operations, but they are not sure if that will be fiscally possible until renovations begin. They are more concerned about building a bakery that will last.

“I’m aiming for the bakery to turn 100 even if I won’t be there,” Sarkozy said.