together we rise.
For anyone who has ever whiled away a few hours sipping coffee and conversing behind the iconic Willis Street windows, Avalon is — and always has been — so much more than a bakery.
Precisely what “more” means is different for all of us, but for Avalon Co-Founder Jackie Victor, one word says it all...
“Community. People love the product, but they come back for the community.” She says.
That word has deep meaning for Victor because although she has found great success in the business community, building community has always been her true north.
“My dad was Jewish, but capitalism was his second religion. He never stopped being amazed at America. To him, it was the greatest country on earth. It was literally the land of opportunity, and he never took that for granted. But, growing up, I was often critical of America because I was — and still am — uncomfortable with capitalism. Despite that, I love entrepreneurism. So when I told my dad I was starting Avalon, he said ‘Aha, you’re becoming a capitalist!’ And I said, ‘No Dad, I’m becoming an entrepreneurial socialist!’”
When she recounts Avalon’s origin story, it’s clear the idea for the business was baking long before the first loaf of bread emerged from the hearth.
“My parents weren’tafraid of or disparaging toward Detroit, so we spent a lot of time there. Driving to and from it on the expressway with them gave me a very real awareness of the socioeconomic differences between the suburbs and the city. When Detroit was really struggling during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I remember asking them why it was happening, but they just didn’t have an answer that felt right to me.”
The search for that answer ultimately led her to the University of Michigan, where she met two Detroit icons who would help her find it.
“I was very involved in understanding the roots of economic disparity in college, and that’s how I met James and Grace Lee Boggs. They spoke at one of my classes about their vision of rebuilding Detroit garden by garden… Relationship by relationship… Neighborhood by neighborhood. Jimmy said, ‘Don't wait for the man to give you a job — bake your own bread, fix your own shoes, build your own bikes.’ That was a totally different perspective than the mainstream narrative at the time. It really captured my imagination, and I thought, ‘If people like that are living in Detroit, I want to live there too.’”
So she moved to the city and started working as a grassroots organizer, often overlapping with James and Grace. At the time, Detroit was battling a long list of deep seeded issues, one of which was a shortage of small businesses.
But in the Cass Corridor, where she and Avalon Co-Founder, Ann Perrault, spent much of their time, there was a food co-op that was thriving in the commercially underserved neighborhood. By then, the idea to open a bakery that could serve the struggling community had been on her mind for some time, but the co-op’s success made her realize it might not be all that far-fetched.
“Ann and I were both between jobs at that time and were trying to figure out what to do. Then one day, she said, ‘Why don’t we open that bakery you’ve always talked about?’ So we did an apprenticeship with a bakery in Northern Michigan. We would work from 1:00 am until 9:00 am, then used our time during the day to write the business plan for Avalon. We were studying Buddhism at the time, and through that, learned about a business model called the triple bottom line that focused on earth, community and employees, and that became the cornerstone of our business.”
With that, they moved back to Detroit to realize their vision.
“So we found the Willis Street space... It was a cave. There was one light bulb, no windows, and a pipe coming from the back where a toilet used to be... The landlord said we could take it ‘as is’ for $500 a month and warned us that ‘the neighborhood’s not ready for windows.” But that didn’t stop us. Our friends helped us with painting, plastering and other interior work; then we bought our oven from Zingerman’s, moved it in September, signed the lease in October, and opened on June 5, 1997.”
Together with friends and family, they worked tirelessly to ready the store for opening day. And when it finally came, it was clear they had accomplished something special.
“There were seven hundred people in the streets — from CEOs to anarchists — and it was nearly all from word of mouth in the community… It was just unbelievable. I woke up the next day amazed, thinking, ‘We moved the needle more in one day than I did in my ten years in political organizing.’ I also realized that the people who were there — not just that day but for all the days leading up to it — those were our base.”
She also realized how much they still had to learn about both baking and business. But in those early days, the community rallied around them, refusing to let them fail.
“We didn’t have MBA’s. We weren’t bakers. Everything we learned came from our customers. I remember a woman who would stop in every day for a baguette before taking the train to Ann Arbor. They were never out of the oven in time, and one day she pulled me aside and said, ‘Jackie, if you’re going to open a bakery at 6:00 am, have your baguettes out of the oven at 6:00 am.” And I said, ‘OK, point well taken.’ Those little lessons happened all the time and helped us grow organically and authentically. They also showed me that no matter what, if we listened to and respected people, we would continue to learn and grow.”
Today, 20 years of hearth and soul later, Avalon remains committed to the values that have been with them since the start, and Victor is still as passionate about them as ever.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to midwife this business and am honored to be working alongside amazing people as we continue to evolve.” She says.
But just as Avalon is more than a bakery, its story — and Jackie Victor’s story — is about so much more than success. It’s about that one word which continues to define her purpose and Avalon’s core mission: Community. The community she discovered on those car rides as a kid and fell in love with while working alongside James and Grace Lee Boggs... The community she saw potential in and the spirit of the people who inspired her to help realize it... The community who proved that when a small group of thoughtful, committed Detroiters unite around a shared mission… Nothing can stop us from rising.