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Robinson bakehouse invests time, love in artisan products

| Monday, April 14, 2014, 11:24 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Nick Ambeliotis Jr. adds relief cuts to loaves of bread before the they are placed in the oven for baking on Monday, April 14, 2014, in Mediterra Bakehouse in Robinson.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Mike Ambeliotis flours Mediterra Bakehouse's trademark Mt. Athos fire bread on Monday, April 14, 2014, in the Robinson bakery.

Nick Ambeliotis speaks in terms of art when he talks about baking bread but acts like a patient investor.

He spent $50,000 on a levain sourdough starter in Paris that he and his family feed every day with flour and water at the Mediterra Bakehouse he opened in Robinson in 2001.

Some of the 15,000 loaves of bread they bake each day take 20 hours to prepare, an investment of time and love. They pass through human hands a half-dozen times from dough to finished product.

“Once you take hands out of the equation, and you can't feel that dough and form that dough according to your artistry, it's just another loaf of bread,” Ambeliotis said as he watched his oldest and youngest sons, Mike and Nick, pull out bread cooked over 30,000 pounds of brick in a huge hearth oven. “We speak to the world through our bread.”

More people, it seems, want to hear what they have to say.

Since opening in an industrial park with three employees nearly 13 years ago, Mediterra has grown to a seven-day operation with 50 employees here and 25 to 30 at Mediterra Bakehouse Southwest, which Ambeliotis opened in Phoenix two years ago. They combined for more than $6 million in sales last year, he said, selling specialty loaves, bulk rolls and pastries in small retail locations, venues such as the West Side Market in Cleveland, high-end restaurants and larger grocery chains.

“They are warm and genuine in their approach to their food and family alike. I love stopping in to say ‘hello' and grab a bread right at the bakery when I can. It's one of my favorite things,” said Rhonda Sholock, bakery team leader at Whole Foods Market Wexford, which carries Mediterra products.

The national chain last year gave Mediterra an unspecified loan through its local producer program that Ambeliotis plans to put toward his next big investment: a $250,000 flash-freezer. The equipment would allow Mediterra to compete with bigger bakeries.

“The big restaurants and chains, they like frozen bread,” said Ambeliotis, who explained that conventional freezing breaks down bread's cellular structure. “This freezes it in a sophisticated way that doesn't harm it.”

Bread is a living thing, he said, and Mediterra treats it as such with its artisan approach. Starters and dough ferment slowly and are allowed exposure to good bacteria in French linens and baskets made of woven willow. Mediterra uses little to no yeast and lots of cold water to produce dark, hard crusts.

“They allow their breads the time needed to come to life and develop flavor without adding unnecessary ingredients,” Sholock said. “Each is unique, complex and delicious with minimal processing.”

Mediterra has seized on the recent push for locally sourced food. Ambeliotis notes that “people want to know what they're eating and where it comes from.” Soon, all the ingredients of its rye bread will come from Washington County farms.

The prime customer is someone with a discerning palate who is willing to pay a little more.

Although it's riding a wave of interest in artisan bread, centuries of tradition come through in loaves such as the Mt. Athos fire bread, named for a peninsula in Greece, and the lighter paesano bread. Before he opened Mediterra, Ambeliotis went to learn from the village bakery in Chios, Greece, that he visited in summers while growing up.

“When you can take the oldest form of food known to man and perfect it, to make it into something so people say, ‘How do you do that?' That's artistry,” he said.

He takes pride in every loaf and muffin, and in the legacy he's passing to Mike and Nick, and their siblings Nicole and Anthony, who work at the bakery.

“What all of us love is, he's our father and a role model and a mentor,” Mike Ambeliotis, 30, hollered over the music in the busy bakehouse as he loaded fire bread into a hearth. “It's nice because he helps shape you as a businessman and as a man.”

David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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