The 2008 recession hit Michigan like a tsunami. Thousands were jobless. Bankruptcies and unemployment soared. There was an exodus of people needing work.
In Traverse City, Pearl and Pete Brown along with their children Niesje, Johanna, Heidi, John and David, like tens of thousands of others, brainstormed around the kitchen table about how to stay afloat.
“Mom, you make a mean loaf of bread,” David said. That was the trailhead for an amazing story and business.
“We got off to a flying start,” Pearl says. “I baked bread, took it to sell at the Building 50 farmers market, and was shut down by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Little did I know I was not complying with laws to sell food.”
Much to their credit, the lead inspector for the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Laurie Sorensen, helped Pearl understand what steps to take to become a legal value-added food producer. The odyssey of Old Mission Bakery began, backed by winning values, like putting people before profits, Pearl explains.
Like most small businesses, the success of the bakery is borne out of sacrifice, long hours and innovation. The word entrepreneur, often misunderstood, rings clear and true here.
Husband Pete’s recruiting firm that specialized in the food and pharmaceutical industries shriveled in the wake of the 2008 market crash. He used the remaining funds to spearhead Pearl’s bread baking venture. They had to be all in. Among his skills, Pete was narrowly edged out of competing in the hammer throw at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and had coached track at the University of Wyoming.
Each of the five children, now young adults, gave up one year of college to work at the bakery. This was after Pearl had dedicated 20 years to being a home-school mom.
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It was old-fashioned love, says Pearl, who taught herself to bake bread. Pearl is passionate about the process, including the magic of yeast and rising bread. “Our sourdough feeds off of the natural yeast in the air that varies with the weather,” Pearl says. “Rising bread is magical.”
Almost all of the bread is American hearth which is distinctive in texture as well as taste, appearance and smell when it’s done—a 24-hour process, brought over from Europe, tweaked by our ancestors based on whatever was available to them. “Our bread is all about nostalgia. These are the memories we all have of our grandparent’s kitchens.”
Their ovens are a motley crew. One found in the basement of The Cook’s House, received in barter for a year’s worth of bread. Others purchased over the years at restaurant supply stores. One they found along the side of a road that still pumps out loaves.
The Browns use natural ingredients and no preservatives. The bread has an average shelf life of seven days. If it edges toward that date, it goes to the Food Rescue, which distributes it to food pantries in a five-county region. All the ingredients are purchased as close to home as possible. Eggs, honey, beer, maple syrup and more.
The bakery has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and recently renewed its commitment to distancing, masking and liberal use of sanitizer.
“It has been a period of pain, loss and anxiety,” Pete says. “The loss of life in two of our staff families was unspeakably devastating. We’ve had financial hardship but have been thankful as well. We have great employees, the rock of our business, who work with us much as family. Our patrons have been patient and supportive. And, yes, we are thankful to have jobs.”
“We are also thankful to Venture North and their Regional Resiliency Program that awarded us a $5,000 grant to help during this dark period,” Pete adds. “We used the grant to design and install the first sign we’ve ever had! It draws customers like a beacon, the signature for where everything happens.”
“Old Mission Bakery is one of many spectacular small businesses we’ve come to know through the Regional Resiliency Program which awarded grants to 302 businesses with about $1.1 million in funding, all donated to the program through philanthropic giving or grant awards,” says Laura Galbraith, president of Venture North. “All of these businesses are entrepreneur-driven and Old Mission’s story is inspiring and mouth-watering for all.”
In March 2020 Pearl became ill with COVID-19. She remained sick for 14 months with Long Haul COVID. The vaccine was a game-changer for Pearl and caused the virus to mostly clear her body. All except one remaining symptom, “I’ve lost my sense of smell and taste,” she announces. “I’m the official inventor and taster of our products. I hope the booster shot helps. Until then, I’ve formed a team to support us. It’s another mountain to climb but we’ll get over it and move on.”
“We are so excited about a new product still in the works,” she says. “Don’t tell anyone. But, I guess you can—it’s a coffee flatbread. We’re still playing with ingredients and the name. This could become the bomb of our line, even bigger than our other products that are flying off shelves from Grand Rapids to Petoskey.”
“Wouldn’t it be something if the area also became known as the ‘coffee bread capital of the world’?”
It certainly would. Some might say it certainly will!
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Order Old Mission Bakery Online or Visit the Traverse City Store
Shop Old Mission Bakery bread online or visit the store to shop the entire bread selection plus buns, muffins, scones, cakes and brownies. They are open Monday from noon to 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For any questions, please contact the Old Mission Bakery team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is the current bread selection at Old Mission Bakery:
- Old Mission Multigrain
- Honey Oat
- Cabin Fever
- Bunnies’ BFF
- Drunken Reuben
- No Shame Multigrain
- For the Birds