After years of expansion, Avalon International Breads is contracting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and closing its New Center establishment nearly three years after its debut.
The beloved Detroit brand made the announcement it would not be reopening its Avalon Cafe & Biscuit Bar on West Grand Boulevard on its Facebook page Wednesday.
Reached by phone Thursday, Avalon co-founder Jackie Victor said the closing was directly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We love that space, the people, the neighborhood, but we were really banking on what New Center was building up to be,” Victor said. “And I think that timeline has maybe gotten a year or two years longer and it just doesn’t make sense. We’re not the kind of business that can bankroll that kind of wait.”
Victor founded Avalon with partner Ann Perrault in Detroit’s Cass Corridor in 1997, making waves with its community-driven, triple-bottom-line approach to business as well as its impeccable bread and pastry items.
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The original location on Willis Street closed for five weeks during the height of the pandemic, but reopened for takeout in May and patio seating in June. Victor said the manager from the shuttered New Center location has joined the Willis team along with some of that spot’s most popular menu items.
“We’ve just put the best of everything in one place,” Victor said.
Over the last five years, the longtime single-location business expanded to new outposts in Ann Arbor, New Center and downtown Detroit. It also moved most production to a large off-site bakehouse on the city’s east side.
While all but the New Center location will be up and running again once the downtown cafe reopens Wednesday, COVID has forced a new course for the company.
“Everyone is changing and pivoting,” Victor said. “Most entrepreneurs are simplifying. Most places who have multiple locations will not have multiple locations when they open back up. We’re just trying to be practical and build sustainable models with less customers and more uncertainty, too.”
In April, Victor penned an op-ed for the New York Times detailing the difficulties of navigating the pandemic and calling for changes to the federal Paycheck Protection Program that would make it more useful for companies like hers.
The federal government eventually softened the terms of the PPP program, and Victor said Thursday that the program has proved to be a crucial lifeline for the ailing business.
“We don’t always recognize good things that happen in the government because we’re so focused on all the disasters, but we wouldn’t be open if it wasn’t for PPP,” Victor said. “At the end of the day, I am very grateful that Congress passed that program in, like, a week. Yeah, it needed to be adjusted, but it got passed. Those are critical programs that have kept us open and I do not take that for granted.”
Pre-COVID, much of the bakehouse’s business was focused on supplying Avalon locations and other restaurants, as well as some grocery store sales and distribution. Before the pandemic hit, Avalon signed a contract with Cincinnati-based Uprising Foods to produce keto bread and that relationship is finally bearing fruit, Victor said. Avalon is also selling more grocery items and pantry staples, doing online ordering and getting creative with catering.
“We’ve shrunk parts of our business and grown other parts,” she said. “We were kind of lucky because we were in a good position to make some shifts. But we have a ways to go until we get revenue to the point where it’s a sustainable business model based on our overhead and operations.”
More than anything, Victor said she has been heartened by the way her employees and management team have risen to the occasion and the gratitude the community has shown. In some ways, the spirit harkens back to the early days of Avalon.
“Willis has been the hearth of the community for 24 years,” Victor said. “And for a few years, there were so many other places to go. But now that there are very f…