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Neighborhood Vanguard Avalon Bakery Was Reshaped by the Pandemic

As co-founder Jackie Victor envisions the stalwart bakery’s future, she recalls how the space helped to shape the city’s turnaround

Avalon Bakery in Midtown, Detroit is a brick, single-story building painted yellow with orange and white awnings, and limited orange-colored seating and tables. Serena Maria Daniels

Avalon Bakery for the past quarter century has been considered synonymous with the dramatic transformation of Detroit, and more precisely, the Cass Corridor.

When Victor and co-founder Ann Perrault opened Avalon’s doors in June 1997, even the landlord at the time questioned whether they were making the right choice. Back then, Cass Corridor was still known for its many derelict historic Victorian mansions, homelessness, and its many residents who dealt with drug or alcohol addiction. In the years to follow, the area would be rebranded as Midtown and experience among the highest levels of redevelopment in the city thanks, in part, to its proximity to Wayne State University and efforts by Midtown Detroit Inc. But before all that new development took place, Victor and Ann Perrault saw an opportunity for positive change.

“Some looked at Detroit and saw economic distress, population exodus, crime, vacant land and abandoned buildings as obstacles too great for a small venture like ours,” the company’s website states. “But we saw the seeds of a transformation, with food growing on vacant land, small businesses filling unmet needs, artists thriving, and neighbors coming together to rebuild, renew and re-spirit the city from the ground up.”

But a piece of that history is about to disappear. This weekend, Avalon’s flagship Willis Street cafe and bakery will close, with the business relocating to a space within Jolly Pumpkin a block away, and it’s left the community and the business’s co-founder Jackie Victor wondering what impact the bakery will have moving into the future.

In an announcement on Jan. 4, Avalon framed the move as reflective of the quickly evolving food industry where collaboration is increasingly becoming the path to survival. Victor says back when the spot first opened on Willis rent was just $500 a month. More than two decades later, rent at the location and all over Midtown has skyrocketed. After the past few years of pandemic-related struggles for restaurants and food businesses, Victor says that company sales dropped by 30 percent, its New Center location closed permanently in August 2020, and finances have never fully recovered. It became clear to Victor and others in the final weeks of 2022 that something dramatic had to happen for Avalon to continue to serve the community.

“At the end of the day, I just think with this economy things have changed,” Victor tells Eater.

A chalkboard sandwich sign discloses changes at Avalon Bakery in Midtown, Detroit, Michigan. Serena Maria Daniels

Avalon’s lifeline comes from Mission Restaurant Group, which invested in the company a decade ago during another period of financial distress. Mission currently provides management services for 20 Michigan-based restaurants, including Avalon and Jolly Pumpkin’s locations. In return, it owns a portion of the business.

Rather than seeking out another investor that could infuse the Willis cafe with enough cash for a much-needed and costly renovation, why not set up shop inside Jolly Pumpkin during the morning hours when the pizzeria and brewery are usually closed so fans could continue to make their daily Avalon run on their way to work? Taking over that spot would also allow Avalon to offer brunch on the weekends, a big money-maker for the bakery’s downtown and Ann Arbor locations, Victor says.

In addition to closing the Willis shop, Victor says that Avalon is taking other measures to streamline the production of its baked goods at all of its locations, increase the shelf life of its retail products, and is selling its east side production facility because — at 50,000 square feet — it’s just too much capacity.

Instead, Avalon staff will run a 5,000-square-foot site and produce a more limited line of items for retail and wholesale and produce unbaked goods for each location that will baked fresh on-site.

“I think we might be on sort of the cutting edge like we were [when we started] when we saw something that wasn’t possible,” says Victor. “I kind of sense that maybe we’re talking about something that isn’t really in the vernacular quite yet. [People might say] ‘Oh, it’s Avalon, you’re so huge, you’re so rich,’ well, no, you’re only rich if you have a lot of money after you pay your bills and we’ve never been rich,” she says.

“And so maybe this is a way where other businesses can survive and even thrive and do it together. I kind of liked the idea of that,” she adds.

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