Avenue Bread Still Rising After Two Decades
If you’ve purchased a sandwich somewhere in Bellingham recently, the odds are good that Avenue Bread was involved. In the last two decades the company has established itself as a primary source not only for baked goods, but for all kinds of delicious eatables. Local organizations including grocery stores, breweries, and even the University purchase wholesale products from them, and thousands of local residents visit their locations every year. So what’s the story behind the incredible success the company has enjoyed?
Avenue Bread was originally established at the Railroad location in 1995 by a couple from California. It started out as a typical retail bakery: cafe in the front, baking in the back. The owners, with the help of head baker John Hughes, created a line of hand-formed artisan bread using a stone hearth oven. The bread, and other baked goods, helped establish the Avenue Bread reputation.
In 2001, John and Wendy DeFreest moved back to Bellingham, where Wendy had originally attended college. They were searching for work when Wendy was contacted by her brother, who worked at the bakery. Wendy’s brother told her that the bakery was for sale, and, since she and John had worked in the restaurant industry before, they decided to talk things over with the current owners. The couple struck a deal which earned them not only the location, but also the head baker: Sean Hughes. Between the three of them, they set out to grow the business.
The next 10 years saw a whirlwind of activity and growth for Avenue Bread. John and Wendy hired a second head baker, Craig Kaskes, in 2002, and with the growing popularity of the bread and other goods the time soon came to expand. In 2005 the Fairhaven location opened, followed in 2008 by the James St location. The following of the deli that originally occupied the James St. location transferred over, and combined with the full-kitchen the space came with, James St. soon became the flagship for the business. In 2011 the demand for wholesale finally outstripped the production capability of the current facilities, and so John and Wendy purchased a full-scale bakery on Humboldt St. and shifted the majority of their baking operations there.
Since 2011 the company has been growing steadily “within our borders”, in Wendy’s terms. With the shift of major operations to Humboldt St, the Railroad St. location underwent a remodel and saw the addition of a wood-fired pizza oven. Wholesale has also continued to grow, with new customers such as Safeway adding to the already impressive local demand.
Building A Reputation
While Wendy was considering whether to purchase Avenue Bread, she made a commitment to herself:
“If I get this business, I want to really be a part of this community,” she vowed, “There’s a lot of community pride here…and I [want] Avenue Bread to be a part of that pride.”
The company has come a long way in achieving that goal, and it’s in no small part due to their efforts to support local residents and organizations. Avenue Bread donates over $150,000 worth of bread back to the community each year, and partner with organizations such as Lighthouse Mission and the Bellingham Food Bank.
Wendy’s focus on creating a supportive community isn’t just outside the company, it’s internal as well. Although she says that staffing is one of the most difficult parts of running a medium-sized business, it’s also one of the most rewarding. Her goal is to create an environment where her employees want to come in to work, even if they’re having a bad day. Even in the event of continuing difficulties between employees, her approach is to transfer the individuals involved to locations where they fit in rather than terminating them.
The following that Avenue Bread has earned through their consistent quality and community engagement is a loyal one. They are consistently voted the Best Sandwich in the Best of Bellingham competition, and their locations serve as a daytime hub for meetings, both social and business related.
Not Done Yet
Although growing within their borders has been the trend for the last few years, Wendy and John definitely aren’t done expanding Avenue Bread. As more potential customers come to Bellingham (like Safeway and Whole Foods), the need to hire more staff for wholesale production will increase. With greater wholesale comes greater brand awareness, and the success of the existing storefronts has proven that the eateries are in demand as much as the bread.
For now Wendy would like to keep new locations within range of the James St. or Humboldt locations, to keep logistics simple. That means looking out to cities like Lynden, where the newest location was recently announced, and possibly north Skagit. Each potential location will be well considered, with an emphasis on buildings that already have a large kitchen or that can have one installed. James St. has proven the importance of having the kitchen on-site, especially for making breakfast. As Wendy says: “people want their hashbrowns”, and you need a kitchen to make them right.
Do you have a special kind of bread that you love to get from Avenue Bread, or maybe a regular order that you always get at your local storefront? Let us know in the comments!