Baking ‘daily bread’ for Grand Rapids
Former chocolate shop and sandwich franchisee buys bakery to sell bread from scratch each day.
Years working in commercial food settings and a detour into travel and tourism taught GR Baking Co. owner Dan Hermen he would find satisfaction at a smaller scale.
Hermen bought the former Sunrise Bread Co. at 900 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids from former owner Carlo Vanin in April 2017 and renamed it GR Baking Co.
Now, Hermen and his 12 part-time employees produce 200-pound batches of buns, rolls, bread and pizza crusts at the beginning of each day and sell it all to schools, restaurants and sub shops by close of business.
“I love that we’re in the daily bread business,” Hermen said. “We are starting from scratch every morning.”
From 2002-07, Hermen was a franchise owner/operator of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory located in Celebration Village at Knapp’s Corner, while also owning and operating a franchise of Roly Poly Sandwiches downtown from 2003-05.
After selling the franchises, he went on to work at the Grand Rapids office of Peterborough, England-based Baker Perkins, selling food processing equipment in the baking, snack and confectionery production industries.
Then, he spent several years in the tourism industry.
“The last six years, I was director of sales and marketing for Witte Travel & Tours, a nationwide tour operation (where) we would set up concerts for choirs in Europe and group tours,” he said. “In that job, I was working on 2019 trips, and I would work on them for years. Today, we work and work all day, and the next day, it’s all gone because everyone ate it.
“I love production and creating — not just creating a business or a brand, but creating bread every day.”
Hermen’s commercial bakery occupies the bulk of a 67,200-square-foot industrial brick building that housed Joppe’s Dairy in 1951 — then was used for various food processing functions before Vanin purchased it and opened Sunrise Bread Co. in 1996.
Vanin still owns the building and has listed it for sale for $1.6 million through Colliers International West Michigan. Hermen said his long-term lease would not be affected by the potential sale of the building, and he plans to stay at least 10 years.
He is keeping Sunrise Bread Co. as the DBA because it’s familiar to his customers, but he changed the official name to GR Baking Co. to allow for selling an expanded range of specialty products. An example might include the small batch of the Dutch pastry banket he produced just before Christmas.
“I thought (the Sunrise name) could limit us to just bread,” he said. “I can bake cookies, cakes, pastries, who knows. Not at the moment, but who knows what the future holds. There’s a lot we could do in these walls; this is a huge building.”
After the holidays, he planned to meet with a consultant to work on testing batches of artisanal bread “to do more complex flavors and more sourdough bread that would be table bread for fancier restaurants.”
GR Baking Co. currently serves customers in Rockford to the north, Wayland to the south, Allendale to the west and Ada to the east.
Hermen said his customer list includes “almost every Italian restaurant” in the area, including Ucello’s, Peppino’s, Vitale’s, Burton Heights Pizza and Italy’s Pizza, as well as “places with oven-baked subs,” such as Ski’s Sub Shop, 96 Monroe Center St. NW downtown.
He also delivers dinner rolls and whole-grain bread to 64 grade schools in Kent County.
With the amount of space on its lease, the bakery hasn’t yet hit production capacity, Hermen said.
“When I show guests around here, I say, ‘Remember, this is the before scene.’ I’m only using two of the ovens now,” he said. “Really soon, we’ll hit the lakeshore and head out to Zeeland and Holland. People could use good bread out there.”
Hermen said the bakery’s niche is making fresh, inexpensive bread that’s never frozen or pumped with preservatives.
“We’re not a huge commercial bakery pumping out cheap bread 24/7. Nor are we our neighbors at the (Downtown) Market, hand-shaping artisanal bread for $10 a loaf,” he said. “Our clients are restaurants who can use 100, 200, 300 rolls or buns at a shot. We’ve just started doing some good hamburger buns.
“It’s better than GFS, and it’s not frozen bread through a distribution channel, which adds overhead.”
Hermen’s employees tend to be neighborhood residents who walk to work.
“Basically, those folks do it all. They have different stations. From 6 a.m. to noon, we are mixing, forming and putting the bread in the proof box,” which is where the bread rises, he said. “We bake from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then they start packing what has been baked and cooled.
“We’ve got equipment that bags (the bread), but they’re placing bread on the wrapper or boxing it. They also slice the sub buns and hamburger buns.”
Hermen paused the interview briefly a couple of times to take bread out of the oven and put it on the cooling racks, then to transfer the next batch from the proof box to the oven.
“The ovens beep, and you have to grab the bread,” he said.
Hermen isn’t always so tied to the timer and spends much of his time working on bookkeeping and marketing. But having his hands in the dough is his first love.
“Up until very recently, my baker would go home by noon, and I would finish baking. He actually just committed more hours to us. I would say I often do the last hour or two of baking,” Hermen said.
Starting a business has been a learning experience for him.
“I’m not ashamed to say it’s harder than I thought it was going to be to bake bread. With Baker Perkins, I sold cookie machines. I’ve been in a lot of bakeries. It’s a whole lot easier to bake cookies. That (bread) yeast does its own thing. Not just from batch to batch but within one batch, and it’s a continuous process from temperature to humidity,” he said.
“It’s a living organism, getting a really consistent product because of how we do it. The big (bakeries) have a line process where every piece of bread is the same. Ours is batches. Learning that was fun.”
The ultimate goal at GR Baking Co. is to keep the products and the service fresh and local, Hermen said.
“Grand Rapids is growing, so let’s give the city a better bread option,” he said. “I want to build a company that’s serving people inside and out. I want people who can’t wait to come to work and make bread for their community.”