June 20, 2017
Pittsburgh’s meister of artisan bread
The Ohio native grew up working for his father, Mike, in the corner grocery store he started after World War II in Warren, near the Pennsylvania border. After graduating with an accounting degree from John Carroll University in 1982, he helped turn the store into the upscale Woodland Market and eventually ended up running it. By 1992, however, he’d grown restless and wanted to try something new.
He took a job with Euro USA, a leading importer and distributor of European cheeses, olive oils and charcuterie. For the next nine years, he traveled the world in pursuit of olives in Greece, spices in Turkey and elusive white truffles in Alba. But that, too, eventually grew old. After a “life experience” that led him back to his Greek Orthodox faith, he took stock.
“I wanted to work with my hands and be spiritual,” he says.
A voice inside told him maybe he should be baking bread and helping people. “Everyone needs to be accountable, or you’re walking aimlessly through life,” he says.
But he knew nothing about baking. So for the next 18 months, Mr. Ambeliotis visited the best bread bakers all over the world, taking it all in one loaf at a time. In 2001, he formed Mediterra Bakehouse. A year later, he started baking in an industrial park in Robinson with a natural yeast starter, called a levian, gleaned from a bakery in Paris. He had just a few employees, 10 varieties of bread and a handful of customers.
Friends, he says, told him he was crazy. Pittsburgh already had a great bread tradition.
But Mediterra would do it a little differently, with small-mill organic ingredients, slow fermentation, overnight proofing and hearth baking in the French tradition in a custom-built steam-injected oven from France. In addition, about 95 percent of production is done by hand using traditional techniques. For instance, bread rises in willow baskets covered in French linen. Dough is cut, weighed and shaped by hand.
“Each loaf of bread is touched by human hands at least five times,” says Mr. Ambeliotis, 56, of Robinson.
What further sets his bakery apart, he says, is the fact it’s grown into a family business. When he started, Mr. Ambeliotis mixed, shaped and baked all the bread himself and delivered it to customers in his car. Today, all four of his children work for him and in pivotal roles. His oldest son, Anthony, 31, is the production manager, while the second son, Mike, 33, serves as bakery and business manager. Daughter Nicole, 28, is a senior business manager, who handles marketing and social media, and her husband, Garrett McLean, is the sales manager.
Then there’s the youngest, Nicholas, who as head baker is responsible for scoring each and every raw loaf that goes into the 450-degree oven. The cuts give the bread its beautiful tic-tac-toe, diamond and other elaborate designs, and also controls which direction the loaves will spread while baking.
The company has grown organically along with its number of customers and sells in stores, including Whole Foods, in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Today, the bakehouse uses upward of 25 different doughs for 65 different recipes. It also makes all of chef Michael Symon’s hamburgers buns with an Austrian roll machine.
Because he considers bread a gift from God, Mr. Ambeliotis tries to enrich as many local families as possible with donations. Mediterra helps feed up to 100 families each week through St. Cyril of White Lake Food Pantry at Holy Assumption of St. Mary Orthodox Church in the South Side, and it sends countless loaves to other charitable organizations.
In 2012, Mr. Ambeliotis opened a second bakehouse near Coolidge, Ariz., which rolls out 5,000 loaves a day during high season. Taking advantage of Arizona’s dry climate and substantial sunshine, Mediterra also is in the wheat business. Thirty-five planted acres yielded 100 pounds of wheat last July, and 250 pounds is expected from this year’s 70 acres. Mr. Ambeliotis hopes to expand to 600 acres or more in the future and build his own millhouse.
Mediterra also is in the midst of a major expansion that will double the bakery and consolidate its pastry business, run by Mike’s wife, Aundrea, which provides desserts and other goodies to Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s and high-end hotels.
It’s not about the money so much, but giving back to the earth and being the best at what you do, Mr. Ambeliotis says.
“It’s been an amazing ride and has kept my family close,” he says.