Local diners may be enjoying Ed’s Bread without knowing it. Zingerman’s Deli was the first area business to use Ed’s Bread. Ari Weinzweig thought it was the best bread in town. Today Ed’s Bread is served in places like Amer’s Deli, Victors Restaurant and Bar, Campus Inn, Casey’s Tavern, Sweetwaters Café and Saline’s own Detroit Dog Co.
Ed Rosen began his eponymous bakery in 1988, in the basement of his Ann Arbor home on Potter Street. Ed knew bread. His father and grandfather had been bakers in Ukraine.
The business was successful and quickly outgrew the basement. In the early 1990s, Rosen moved the bakery to a commercial location in Ann Arbor and began hiring employees. But Rosen was a baker, not a businessman.
Rosen’s financial backers pushed him to expand. The business became stressful and he became burdened with debt. Apparently in frustration, Rosen left the business, left his marriage and left town.
When he departed in 1993, he handed the business over to his wife Leslee Niethammer. The couple divorced about a year later. In contrast to Rosen, Niethammer knew something about business management, but not much about baking bread.
The bakery was Rosen’s parting gift – and curse – to the Niethammer family. Leslee, her father, her two sisters and several nieces became involved with the business.
Leslee fought to save the foundering business. She was assisted by her father Leon and sister Judy who had already become employees. She inspired the employees to work hard and get through the difficulties. In 1996 the bakery was sold to her sister and brother-in-law, Sandra Niethammer and Thom Byrd.
When Byrd arrived from Washington state in 1996, he realized that some product was being sold for less than it cost to make. Over the next year he readjusted pricing, learned the baking business from employees who had been trained by Rosen and looked for ways to reduce operating costs.
After his learning year, Byrd and his wife took a more active management role in the bakery. They also began making product.
Sandra had dreamed of owning her own business, so for her the bakery was the fulfillment of a long-held wish. Byrd had been exposed to baking while in the military. Serving near Frankfort Germany, he lived in the same building as a baker and he used to practice his language skills with him. During these times the baker put him to work.
Through this experience, Byrd realized that baking was something he enjoyed. He had already been exposed to the baking industry through his mother, who did IT work for Carolina Foods, Inc., a national distributor of baked goods. Still, he did not know that one day baking would become his life.
Byrd is a jack-of-all-trades. He studied languages in the military, received a college degree in biology, and then became a baker, engineer and businessman at Ed’s Bread.
“Without patting myself on the back, I’m pretty quick at picking things up and I never flinch at trying something new,” Byrd said.
He demonstrated some of his baking knowhow in describing the bread making process. There are three stages. The first stage is mixing the ingredients in proper proportions, separating it into portions for different purposes and proofing, in which the dough is allowed to rise. The second stage is shaping and more proofing. The third stage is the actual baking of properly prepared dough in the oven.
After baking, the bread still must be sliced and packaged. The final step is delivery to customers. It is a lot of work.
“I’ve never met two people in my whole life that work harder than these two,” Leslee said, “These guys are just like machines.”
In fact, Thom’s day usually begins at 1 a.m. and often lasts until 7 p.m. Sandra’s workday is similarly grueling. But they are rewarded by visible results.
“What I like about it is, I start the day and I have nothing and at the end of the day I know what I’ve done,” Byrd said. “It’s all there, so that’s kind of nice.”
Byrd says that the bread from Ed’s is “not the squish breads that we grew up with.” Nor is it hard crusty artisan bread. It is in-between, with substance and flavor, ideal for sandwiches.
There are two qualities that set Ed’s Bread apart. One is that their products are natural, made from scratch, without chemical additives. The other is that their bakery is very agreeable to customer demands. They are willing to customize to meet specific needs. These attributes have been a formula for success.
The bakery moved to 201 W. Michigan Ave. in Saline in 2005. The building is set back from the street and easy to overlook, but the products are often seen in restaurants and farmers’ markets throughout the area.
Leslee Niethammer laughs with a customer at the Ed's Breads Farmers Market booth.