Avalon International Breads’ Jackie Victor has acted as an inspiring businesswoman and visionary in Detroit’s rebirth for over a decade.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi of England and the author of 30 books, notes that the medieval scholar Maimonides held that the highest form of charity was job creation. Economic policy, Sacks further articulates, is not about abstractions like GDP but about people.
Employment, he says, is a moral issue because dignity comes from what we do to enhance the lives of others. Sacks writes that work being fundamental to human dignity is a Jewish idea just as it is an economic one. “We believe that everyone should be able to say, ‘I made a contribution to the common good. I gave; I did not just receive. I earned my daily bread.’”
Daily bread and doing good is something that Jackie Victor knows well as the CEO of Avalon International Breads, which just celebrated its 22nd anniversary June 5. Avalon, the largest buyer of organic flour in the state, is in a period of dramatic organic growth.
It’s a made-in-Detroit story that started when Jackie and co-founder Ann Perrault opened in 1997 that has become a made-in-Detroit success.
Millions of Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookies, Vegan Blueberry Muffins and crusty loaves of Farnsworth Family Farm Bread and other leavened items later, its growth has soared from not-even $800,000 a decade ago to almost $8 million in 2019, and now employs more than 100 people, most of them people of color and Detroit residents.
Do the math: Avalon now has five retail outlets serving 1,300 customers a day. It has a growing group of more than 100 restaurants, cafes and grocery stores — from Whole Foods to Holiday Market — offering its Hastings Street Challah, Dexter Davison Rye, vegan carrot cake slices and an evolving and often seasonal assortment of other breads and pastries, now available for catering as well, including Jackie’s favorite, the Motown Multigrain Bread.
The baking, which used to occupy just 2,000 square feet, has now moved to a bakehouse that measures nearly 50,000 square feet.
Plum Market CEO and co-founder Matt Jonna said he’s a big enthusiast of Avalon and especially loves its vegan offerings. All Plum Market’s large-format stores sell Avalon products. “We started selling Avalon items 12 years ago when we opened our first location,” Jonna said. “I am a big fan of Avalon and Jackie in particular, and I have great respect for what she has built.”
The Avalon retail network has expanded into Ann Arbor and a Downtown location, where it is a tenant of one of the many Bedrock buildings. While corporations are expanding and doing more business in the city, Victor is cognizant of the income inequality and disparity that has been growing as well. “The truth is,” she said, “most of Detroit has not changed in the way that the Downtown core has, and a lot more needs to be done by all stakeholders.”
Victor had her first residence in Southwest Detroit, then lived in Midtown, Cass Corridor and Lafayette Park before moving to Huntington Woods two years ago when her children became high-school age. When she was raising her kids, she saw a wonderful but very small Jewish community in Detroit. Now she sees a vibrant and increasingly active one.
“One of the most satisfying things over the last two decades is to see the younger, progressive Jewish people that have moved into the city,” Victor said. “I started to see it 10 years ago when they revitalized the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue; there are now young, Jewish leaders who are activists, making movies, studying in rabbinical school and using their experience within the community for the greater good of the city.”
A Community of Support
To Victor, growth can’t be viewed through a singular lens. To her, it’s always about Earth, community and her employees. About half of Avalon employees have been with the company two years or more — well above industry-average.
“Our flagship store on Willis had almost zero turnover last year and we have many people there who have been with us for 17 years, off and on,” she said. “At the Bakehouse, we have a number of people who have worked with us for up to 13 years, off and on.”
One attraction: Jackie prioritized health insurance for her team long before it was mandated.
Her brother, Jewish communal leader and philanthropist David Victor, said that Jackie leads with her heart and is 100 percent authentic. “No pretense, no prose, what you see and what she feels is what you get. And you know you’re lucky to get it.”
Victor credits her father, Steven Victor, as her business role model. “He thought I was crazy at the time, but always supported my endeavors, as did my entire family,” she said. “My brother, David, my sister, Julie, my mom, Arlene all were there every step of the way. My extended family has always been universally supportive of Avalon and everything I have done with my life, although it has taken twists and turns that might have been surprising to them. My parents had a very close circle of friends in the Detroit Jewish community that were always very supportive as well.”
Victor’s mother recycled before it was fashionable and planted an early seed in Jackie’s mind about the need to make decisions that benefit the Earth. Jackie’s father was involved in Jewish communal and philanthropic organizations and helped guide her to leadership as board member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue for six years and as a role model to Jewish activists in the city.
It was not just her father who viewed her ambitions as crazy. A key part of the Avalon narrative is that when Jackie wanted to open up shop, the landlord told her the building was not “ready for windows.”
Oren Goldenberg, vice president and chair of fundraising committee for the Downtown Synagogue, says that Victor is a valued financial partner and strategic visionary. He thought so highly of her potential that he stepped off the board to make room for Jackie to have a seat at the table.
“She is an incredible woman who contributed to revitalize Detroit by investing in Cass Corridor,” Goldenberg said. “She is really dedicated to doing good via her triple bottom line philosophy, being available to counsel those who look up to her as a role model and is a great mother as well.” Jackie is the mother to two children, Rafi and Ari.
“I don’t know what I would have done without Avalon,” says Goldenberg, now 35, who has been a resident of the Cass Corridor since 2007. He remembers the egg- and-cheese breakfast sandwich, sold for $2.75, and his favorite, the chocolate cherry scones.
Avalon’s has contributed to advancing the food ecosystem in the Detroit community and to promoting nonprofits that support a healthy, just Detroit with access to healthy food and economic opportunity.
Recently, Victor hosted a tasting and fundraiser for Detroit Food Academy. “I have been a fan of DFA since the organization’s inception in 2011,” she said. “Over the course of the last year, my respect has turned into awe.”
For DFA co-founder Noam Kimelman, the admiration is mutual. “Jackie is a tremendous force in the community,” he said. “I’ve known her for eight years now, and I’m continually amazed with the energy and passion she brings to everything she does. I’m especially fortunate to serve with her on the board of the Detroit Food Academy, where she has so generously given of her time, resources, and expertise. It’s clear to me that Detroit would not be where it is today without Jackie Victor.”
Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five, has known Victor for 15 years. She will never forget when she started her business in 2005 and sought Victor’s help during a challenging launch. The fence outside of her location, Victor suggested, was in need of paw prints.
Blondy views Jackie as a mentor and a friend, who then became a client. “Watching the evolution of her business and the grace in which she has handled it with the changes in her neighborhood and life and industry. She is always giving advice with a smile on her face to other business owners.”
When food entrepreneur David Mancini had an idea for a high-quality pizza restaurant, Victor knew exactly where it should be. She suggested a space in the Eastern Market which has become its home to this day. There are many stories like that within the community.
Inspired by Her Roots
Victor, not surprisingly, has social activism in her roots. She formerly was executive director of a statewide peace and justice organization. Beyond government policy, she was focused on empowering individuals. Her on-the-job success was measured by how many people she involved in her cause and whether those stakeholders were in it for the long haul.
Victor’s work ethic, which has her day starting at 5 a.m. and led to 80-hour work weeks, was witnessed early in her career as well. In 1987, when there was a Michigan Peace March for Global Disarmament, she walked 350 miles from Sault Ste. Marie to Detroit.
Although her father thought opening Avalon was a crazy decision, he was always there for words of wisdom and whatever support he could provide. Victor quotes his lessons so often that her management team knows “SIV” (Steven I. Victor) quotes by heart. One example: Her father would ask her, “How is it going according to Jewish accounting?” which was his way of asking, “How much money do you have in the bank at the ready when needed?”
Victor remembers going on a ski trip with her father as a young girl. He wanted to publicize a business class he would teach lawyers who were on vacation. “He made a deal with me,” Victor said. “If I put up posters, we’d ski for a day.”
She agreed and hundreds of people showed up for his class — the beginning of American Educational Institute, a thriving business that exists to this day.
Twenty-two years later and running a $8 million per year business, Steven’s words still ring true to Jackie: Keep it simple. “I could make a whole book of his ‘pearls of wisdom’,” she said.
Her parents’ values of living a life bigger than yourself and giving back to the community have informed her life’s path in ways they could not have imagined. “The other critical aspect to my family’s values is that we all knew that we are privileged,” she said, “but that didn’t mean that we were entitled.” She said she recognizes that every day she has lived and worked in Detroit, an economically diverse community.
“I had the privilege and economic security to take a risk to start Avalon and raise my children in Detroit. I never take that privilege for granted, nor do my children,” she said. “I am humbled every day to work with incredibly hard-working people who make Avalon successful every single day.”
Her business buzzes on a schedule spanning most day and evening hours. The baking usually includes a few thousand pounds of dough a day, 10-15 different mixes. One dough at a time. Over and over and over. The dough rises in a windowless facility, and then people come in to form and scale the bread, kneading it, setting into loafs and organizing it on racks.
That’s before it enters the oven, where a sliced-to-order Hastings Street Challah may arise, reminding Jackie of the store her grandfather, Ben, had on Hastings Street in Detroit’s Paradise Valley, where he sold shoes and clothes to neighborhood customers and where her father learned the lessons of honesty, hard-work, gratitude for all and menschkeit that he passed on to her.