Jackson — Mike Young was a devoted customer of Great Harvest Bread Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver, Colo., frequently nibbling slices of freshly made loaves from the company’s signature breadboard.
On a whim while standing in line one day during the holiday season of 2003, Young picked up a card with information about buying a franchise. He immediately knew that it was time to make a change.
“I’d worked on international agricultural development projects for many years, and had a background in dairy farming and animal genetics, so it all seemed like a natural precursor to being in the bread business,” said Young. “Besides, every store I visited had people working there who always seemed to be having a good time. Customers were very relaxed and comfortable. There was never any push-and-shove at the counter. Everybody came out of the store with their mouths full of bread. I thought, what a pleasant environment to come into a store and have expectations filled or exceeded and leave quite happy.”
When Young called Great Harvest’s 800-number for information on franchises for sale, he was disappointed that none were available out west, where the demand for whole-grain breads was exceptionally high. He was also disheartened to learn that for every two franchises granted, the company received more than 400 inquiries a month. Then he learned that Ron and Jacque Gregg were selling their Jackson franchise and, sight unseen and having never been to Mississippi, Young decided to buy it.
“I didn’t know a soul here,” said Young, “but on July 1, 2004, I bought the store and then immediately bought a house.”
Not so fast
Young endured a rigorous screening process, like the one the Greggs faced before they were granted the Jackson franchise, which opened March 17, 2000. “I told my husband that I felt like I was in a beauty pageant or an event with that kind of intensity,” recalled Jacque Gregg, with a laugh. “We wrote several letters, letting them know our desire to open a store and we told them about our background. They talk quite honestly about how strong your relationship is in your marriage, how hard the work is, what your financial expectations are, how much time you’ll spend in the store, why you think it will work in your community, what gives you a sense that it would be a positive experience. After that, there were several phone interviews well over an hour long each.”
As a result, the success rate for Great Harvest franchisees is very high.
“They have you go to a couple of bakeries, talk to other storeowners,” said Gregg. “They want you to really know what you’re getting into. They know you already know how to run a business, but it takes quite a bit of work to get a new bread store up and running.”
Tom Petzinger Jr. of The Wall Street Journal called Great Harvest a franchise operation that “hardly operates like a franchise.”
“In this company, franchisees run their stores as they see fit, tinkering with recipes, setting their own prices, varying as much as they choose from the basic model,” he wrote.
The company asks franchisees to commit to five quality-oriented promises, and “after that, in bold letters, the franchise agreement says everything else is allowed,” said Young.
“It’s called a freedom franchise, where owners have the freedom to have their own personality come through in the store,” he explained. “The mission statement says to bake phenomenal bread. We religiously use quality ingredients, fanatically stay committed to the recipe and the routine and maintain correct times and temperatures. We don’t cut corners and we have a skilled baker who makes it work on a daily basis. It’s a proven system that works.”
Before the crack of dawn
A typical workday begins at 4 a.m., when the crew begins whipping up batches of muffins, two kinds of cookies, an assortment of teacakes and a variety of breads. The five-hour bread-making process requires an early start to produce eight or nine different breads by 11 a.m. On a Saturday in June, the staff of seven produced and sold 250 loaves of bread.
“We make four basic breads daily and add five to seven varieties per day based on demand,” said Young. “Through the course of a week, we’ll have 15 to 18 different breads on the shelf. Cinnamon Swirl, Dakota Bread and Honey Whole Wheat are very popular breads.”
After the morning rush, the staff begins grinding wheat on a stone mill for the next day’s batch of whole grain bread.
“Fresh ground makes a big difference,” said Young. “If you buy bread through a grocery store, chances are the wheat was ground a month or two before and the bread was made a day or two before it hit store shelves.”
Muffin sales have increased three-fold, particularly low-fat oat bran muffins with mixed fruit.
“We keep making a few more all the time and they keep going out the door,” said Young. “We’re really happy about that.”
Great Harvest’s hallmark cookie — oatmeal chocolate chip with walnuts — remains a customer favorite. Teacakes, not the old
Southern style but rather more of a loaf cake, are popular gift-giving items. Holiday breads sell extremely well, particularly pumpkin, cranberry and white chocolate cherry varieties, especially when sold in customized gift baskets.
“We will probably finish our first year with sales about 20% over the previous year,” said Young. “Most of our growth has occurred since December, and in the last seven months, we’ve probably averaged 35% growth. Even though advertising and promotions have helped, the biggest kicker was when the reformulation of the food pyramid was released in January. There seemed to be an immediate and greater awareness of nutritional value of eating whole grain breads, and a trend toward more balanced eating.”
Great Harvest earmarks 3% to 5% of gross sales toward community outreach projects, from supporting fundraising activities with donated products to handing out slices of bread to walkathon participants. Depending on the size of the event, Young usually gives away 10 to 40 loaves of bread.
Almost 200 Great Harvest stores are open nationwide, with the Jackson location representing the only one in Mississippi and the Deep South. This fall, a retail location will open in Lafayette, La., a second store will open in Florida, two are slated for Alabama and a third one will open in metro Atlanta.
Entrepreneur Magazine has consistently rated it the nation’s number one bakery franchise and Success Magazine has ranked Great Harvest one of the Franchise Gold 100 Top Franchises in the country. Income Opportunities Magazine has listed it among franchises with the best chance for success.
“(Mike’s) has become the biggest bakery in Jackson,” said Kurt Rushing, director of business development for Jackson-based Southern Research Group. “I walk in there all the time just to smell all of the stuff he has coming out of the oven.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.