You might say that bread is in owner Gerald Matthes' blood. For awhile — nearly 40 years — it was hidden behind a career in marketing. But eventually, blood will tell.
After all, it's hard to deny six generations of bread making.
Across the ocean blue
If you have a chance to chat with Matthes you might notice a slight accent. Originally from England, Matthes said that when he returns there the natives ask where he's from. Decades away will do that.
"In 1964 I set sail to work on Madison Avenue for 18 months," said Matthes, of Bloomfield Hills. "Forty-eight years later, I'm still here!"
But to tap into his bread-baking roots, Matthes had to cross the ocean again, this time to Germany, the original land of his ancestors.
"It was 1985 and I was in Germany on business. After work I stopped to visit a friend who lived locally. I had a photo of my great-great uncle's bakery in Braunsbach," Matthes said. "We got in my friend's little car and went in search of it."
Much to his surprise, the building still stood. The landlord let Matthes investigate the building and there in attic rubble left by a British bomb from World War II, Matthes found the 200-year-old signed prayer book of an Anna Matthes.
"I got to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors," Matthes said.
He told his wife of his inspiration and she laughed. "You've never baked a loaf of bread in your life," she told him.
But Matthes was ready to learn.
Learning from scratch
When Matthes sets out to learn something, he does not take it lightly.
He spent the next 12 years criss-crossing the United States to learn everything he could about hearth-baked, hand-formed bread.
"I phoned up the six great Artisan breadmakers in America, from New York to California, and each graciously allowed me to spend a day with them. This inspired me all the more," Matthes said.
He attended courses at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and the National Baking Center in Minneapolis. And he interned in bakeries in New York and Michigan, all while continuing his marketing career, which during this time transferred him to Michigan to work on the Chrysler account.
Finally, in 1997, "after 39 years of gritty corporate life," Matthes decided the time had come to continue the family tradition and open his own European-style bakery.
Rochester was selected as the location because "it's the epicenter of European transfers." (In fact on any given day you can hear three or four languages or accents in the cozy bakery that seats 12.)
"Rochester is a place where people go about their daily lives living in a real way," Matthes said. "There's a great feeling about it, a lot of character, a lot of diversity.
"Driving in, over that hill, you know it's special."
13 years later ...
By May of 1999 Give Thanks Bakery was ready to open.
Jackie Greer, also known as "Grandma Cookie," was already in place and is still there today.
"Customers are sad if they come in on Grandma Cookie's day off," said Theresa Dalton, vice president and office manager. "She has a fan club."
Dalton joined the staff one month after the bakery opened. She knew Matthes from church and said, "he wooed us with his North Country bread, it was nothing like I've tasted before."
Dalton's favorites, and she's tried them all, include:
- Palmier puff pastries, a classic French compliment to coffee: puff pastries rolled and dipped in sugar;
- Lemon curd tart, made from scratch
- Swiss multigrain, her bread of choice.
The bakery now has 16 employees, mostly part-time specialists, including six pastry chefs.
"We do something very unique," Dalton said.
For Matthes, though, it's still all about the bread.
"We are the only full-scale bakery in the Midwest that bakes 100 percent with no commercial yeast. That makes it a three-day process versus a 12-hour one, but like wine or cheese, the benefits of that time are enormous — the complexity, the interesting flavors," Matthes said.
The bread made with natural fermentation doesn't stale as quickly and retains its texture when frozen, making it a perfect product for the 20 hotels, including Rochester's , as well as restaurants, country clubs and catering companies that Give Thanks serves.
Named for the line of scripture, "Give thanks always for all things unto God," the bakery's mission remains simple.
"We want you to walk out happier than when you walked in," Matthes said.
To celebrate the bakery's 13th anniversary, Give Thanks will offer guests the choice of a complimentary baguette Parisienne, almond croissant or cup of Illy coffee on Tuesday, May 8.
Last year I discovered the secret recipe behind the bakery's famed almond croissant. .