Perspectives from ISB

Mediterra Bakehouse in Pittsburg is owned by Nick Ambeliotis, a gentle Grecian giant. Ambeliotis might live and work in Pittsburgh, but he still considers Cleveland home. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, attended John Carroll University, and maintains season tickets to the Browns. For nearly a decade, he worked for Euro USA, a Cleveland-based importer and distributor of gourmet food products. As buyer, it was Ambeliotis’ job to scour Europe for the world’s finest cheeses, olive oils, pastas and charcuterie.

“During all my travels I would see all these artisans and I thought, I really want to do something like that,” he explains. “I wanted to do cheese, but it’s very complicated. I thought, bread is something I can do.”

Never mind that he knew nothing at all about baking. Today, following 15 years of relentless growth, the bakery has gobbled up 20,000 square feet and maintains a payroll approaching 100-staffers long. “We’ve just grown organically, one customer at a time,” Ambeliotis modestly says. “Every time we made a little money we bought a piece of equipment. But I don’t think we’re still really well known because we’re wholesale.”

Ambeliotis says that he never would have gotten this far without the aid of family. His sons Anthony, Mike and Nick Jr. all hold key roles in the company, as does daughter Nicole, her husband, a daughter-in-law and two boys (now men) who the boss “informally adopted” from Guatemala. “I struggled before Mike came on because it’s hard,” Ambeliotis explains. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day operation and I’d go home and come back the next day and they don’t care, it’s just a job. And the ones who are really good, they move on.”

Breads are made the Old World way, using very little or no yeast, instead relying on natural starters called a levain. “We do a lot of volume, but everything is still done by hand,” boasts Ambeliotis. “We do 20,000 loaves a day and every one of them is perfect.”

Two enormous hearth ovens, both built onsite by a seventh-generation French company, are the true workhorses of the bakery. Each has about 35,000 pounds of refractory brick inside. Out of those ovens come some of the most seductive and satisfying loaves in the country, from light and airy paesanos and uber-tangy San Francisco sourdoughs, to the dark, dense and chewy Mt. Athos Fire bread.

A few years ago, Ambeliotis began spending more and more time in Arizona where he could escape the daily pressures of the job, he explains. But he soon grew listless and bored. “So I bought a building and started producing and now we’re the largest artisan bread baker in Phoenix,” he says. “You find something you love to do and you try to get better at it every day. That’s all you can do.”

Source: Trattner, Douglas, January 10,

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