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Even this Detroit bakery has a hard time finding skilled workers

Feb 6, 2015

Avalon International Breads flagship store in Midtown Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Detroit businesses sometimes have a hard time finding qualified workers. Even a bakery determined to hire its neighbors has had a tough time.

“At one school I was hiring from,  I had to get rid of most of the people that I hired from that school because they didn’t know the poundage or how to read recipes or anything like that,”  Tony Johnson said. He’s the Human Resources manager for Avalon International Breads.

Avalon pulled the first loaves out of the oven at its Cass Corridor bakery in 1997. People thought it was crazy to start an organic bakery in a city that was suffering, in a neighborhood that had seen better days. Jackie Victor is the CEO and one of the co-founders of Avalon.

“For us, we’re here because this is our city and, you know, we love it.”

Jackie Victor is Avalon's CEO. She and Ann Perrault co-founded the bakery in 1997.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

From that small storefront in Cass Corridor –now called Midtown- the folks at Avalon have added another retail site at Henry Ford Hospital. More recently, Avalon opened a production facility called a bakehouse, to supply retailers. It’s in an industrial area near the abandoned Packard automobile factory.

Ninety percent of their 56 employees are Detroit residents. When it started, rather than put jobs ads in the newspapers, Avalon always kept it local, letting their neighbors know when they were hiring.

“We would just put up flyers in the bakery and then that was the way that word got out in the community that we were hiring. So, mostly who we hired was people in the community,” Victor said.

Detroit’s unemployment rate is about double that of the state as a whole. Lots of people are out of work. But hiring people who can do the job has not always been easy. Applicants who interviewed well didn’t always have the literacy or math skills necessary to make the breads, cakes, and cookies, explained Kyresha LeFever. She manages Avalon’s bakehouse.

“We do have a hard time finding inner-city people that just have the background, a baking background or a pastry background. We search outside of the city to the culinary schools. Unfortunately, they’re outside of the city. And we have to put up that search. So, it’s hard in terms of background,” LeFever said.

But, the Avalon owners still want to hire as many neighbors as they can. The company has changed how it hires. Instead of just an interview, applicants are invited to do a working interview, actually go out on the floor and mix up a batch of muffins or some other baked good using Avalon’s recipe.

Sweet baked goods just pulled from the oven. Kyresha LeFever manages Avalon's bakehouse.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Usually companies just hire from anywhere. CEO Jackie Victor says she and co-founder Ann Perrault knew from the beginning that Avalon was not just about commodities and profit margins. Yes, Avalon has to be profitable, but Victor says the company follows a triple-bottom line principle: earth, community, and employees.  For them, that means being eco-friendly, buying local produce, paying their employees above minimum wage, and providing health insurance. Jackie Victor says the company’s accountants don’t always think Avalon is nearly as profitable as it could be. She’s okay with that.

“You have to understand these sort of tangible, yet intangible benefits of having a business in the city, but mostly you have to really want to,” Victor said.

She thinks the unorthodox business approach has had its own reward. People are drawn to the company because they believe Avalon is actually following its motto, “Eat Well; Do Good.”

Richard Watson has worked for Avalon for more than a decade. He lives in Detroit and he’s grateful companies like Avalon are offering opportunities in the city. As he was preparing dough to head for the ovens, he said he's happy about finding a job in the city.

“I think it’s very good. And I don’t think that it’s good that we should always have to travel outside the city to find jobs,” Watson said.

Avalon’s owners say they’ll keep hiring people from Detroit because that’s what you do when you want to be part of the community.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

The display case at Avalon International Bread's flagship store in Detroit's Midtown.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio