Kalamazoo's Sarkozy Bakery: Old world baking in an ever-changing world

Editor's Note: In our series, From the Storefront, On the Ground Kalamazoo Writer Mark Wedel gets up close and personal with some longtime downtown Kalamazoo business owners who've had a glimpse through the front window into the good, bad, occasionally ugly, and often beautiful changing face of Kalamazoo over the years. As Kalamazoo is on the brink again of a major facelift, it's helpful to be reminded that we've been here before. 

KALAMAZOO, MI — From a bottle of Hungarian wine, a lot of baked goods have flowed.

Judy Sarkozy started Sarkozy Bakery with her husband Ken in 1978. She's seen downtown Kalamazoo from two shop windows: the bakery on Burdick just north of the Kalamazoo Mall, and after that burned down in 2012, the new storefront on Michigan Avenue between Edwards and Pitcher. She's seen downtown at its deadest, she's seen revitalization, and she's seen the love of a supportive community when tragedy hits.

Now 82, Sarkozy isn't quite retiring. In 2022 she sold 50% of the business to understudy Alec Wells. With the realization that the bakery is just four years away from its 50th anniversary, Sarkozy and Wells are looking at the past, looking at the future, and mixing traditional baking with progressive employment policies and new urbanism ideas.


In 1974, Judy and Ken Sarkozy wanted to get away from Wayne State. They'd both earned their PhDs, and "we decided we wanted to leave academia," she says, "Find a place to live, and figure out what to do once we get there."

They drew a one-day drive circle on the map because they couldn't afford to stay overnight. Kalamazoo is as far as they got.

In its second home, Sarkozy Bakery on Michigan Avenue is worth the challenge of parallel parking.Jump to 1977. The couple found themselves in "a blizzard, and we lived in a drafty farmhouse," Sarkozy says.

"I wanted to make a hearty wonderful dinner." But they had no bread. 

She decided to make French bread from a complicated 23-page recipe, in "an oven that you had to close with a bungee strap." 

It took all afternoon. "We'd never had French bread, we didn't know French bread from a hot rock," she says.

Sarkozy stops and says there is a "critical element" to the bakery's origin story.  

"This is a cautionary tale about drink," she says. "We had a liter bottle of Hungarian wine. As we were finishing the bread, and finishing the wine, we said, 'Man, this is good! You know, we could sell this!' And that's why you shouldn't drink too much." 

Bakery Founder Judy Sarkozy and now half-owner Alec Wells have shared values for the business.A year later, the couple was opening a bakery on North Burdick. "On our first day, we sold $21.85 worth of baked goods," she says, "$16 was spent by my college roommate."

They bought the old bakery for $4,500, including some "really ancient equipment." Judy got a job with Kellogg's, which "funded the rehab of the space."

"Like a whole lot of small businesses, we started out with no money. So it's always been a scrabble," Sarkozy says.

Ken and Judy weren't really compatible as co-owners. "The two of us could not run a business together. We learned that!" she says with a laugh. He went to work for the Downton Kalamazoo Association, she stuck with where the dough was.

"That was a neighborhood. This is not."

The old building on Burdick used to house a brothel sometime in the 1800s, she says, and a Turkish grocery store serving Turkish railroad workers working on the nearby tracks. 

The block was an island stuck between Eleanor Street. and Kalamazoo Avenue, just north of the Kalamazoo Mall. The neighbors over those years included bars Missia's and Mr. President, record store Flipside, and the Rickman House. 

"And the chair-rental place," she says, laughing.

Loyal customers count on the seasonal baked goods at Sarkozy's Bakery.The block was its own little funky microcosm.

The Sarkozys were told in the '70s, "Oh, you can't have a business north of Michigan Avenue. You just can't do that," she says.

"We were from Detroit and had lived through the riots, and we thought that neighborhood looked just fine, thank you very much.

"And we were young and stupid. And it worked."

The big difference between the North Burdick and Michigan Avenue shops is, "That was a neighborhood. This is not," she says.

She remembers clientele being "more housewifey," plus "a lot of people from Upjohn and a lot of people who had lived overseas and had good bread," she says.

"Sarkozy Bakery employees work a four-day week.It was a very different kind of neighborhood. But it was a real neighborhood."

She remembers the apartment building next door, housing low-income people and people with disabilities. "At the Rickman House, more people were out sitting in the street. And they used to look after the bakery. I'd come in and they'd say, 'Oh, there were a couple of kids trying to get in the back door, but we scared them away.'"

There were a few rambunctious summer block parties, and a few bar customers coming and going in various states of inebriation.  

It was a "neighborhood that I very much enjoyed, but it frightened customers. Of course, Kalamazoo frightens customers as well. But a lot of people were just afraid to go down there."

She adds, "Which I saw as insane, but it's okay."

Dead downtown

Is it accurate to say that downtown Kalamazoo in the '80s-'90s was dead?

"Oh, yeah," she says. "And in the '70s it was worse. But in the '80s we were putting fake displays in (vacant) stores on the mall to make it look like there were stores. And it was, everybody was, 'Oh, woe is us. What are we going to do with downtown?'"

She says, "Of course, I looked at it, and I'm from outside of Flint. And I thought, 'This is a really good-looking downtown.'"

But it needed some improvement. 

What Sarkozy likes about Kalamazoo is, "This town faces problems and addresses them."

Bakery Founder Judy Sarkozy and now half-owner Alec Wells have shared values for the business."We still have big problems, and we haven't handled some of them very well..... There were several studies that, yes, a lot of it got put on the shelf, but each time some things happened and there were some ways that the downtown was made attractive."

She remembers the Arcadia Creek development in the '90s as a "really rough time."

"We had four years of having the roads closed at Christmas time," Sarkozy says. During construction, "People were climbing over dirt to get to the bakery."

She thought they'd be wiped out by the Arcadia Creek redesign when it was completed, cut off by all the new development. Sarkozy then went to a city design charrette and saw planning maps that included the bakery and pedestrian walkways to it. 

"Clearly they were including us in this, and we were a piece of it," she says. "I saw Kalamazoo working on Kalamazoo."


In February 2012, the bakery went up in flames. 

After, "I was a basket case," Sarkozy says.

But the community support was overwhelming. Some secret benefactors put $10,000 in a bank account for her. "A guy, a street guy walked up to me and handed me two bucks." The then Gilmore International Keyboard (now Piano) Festival invited her to make cookies for the concerts coming up that spring.

Customers love to check out the daily array of tempting cookies and pastries."And I said, 'no, no, no'... But we made those cookies. And when those cookies hit the concerts, I was shocked at the way people responded."

Listening like a patient grandson, Wells interrupts, "You got my beer money for that week."  He was a student at Michigan State at the time.

Wells says that when he was a Kalamazoo teen, in 2007, he saw Sarkozy speak at First Baptist. "So you say (now) you didn't realize what the bakery meant to Kalamazoo, but you were already talking about it in like 2007, of how blown away you were by community support."

Bakery Founder Judy Sarkozy and now half-owner Alec Wells have shared values for the business.He heard her talk about how "You were experiencing tough times, the bakery was experiencing tough times, and the community came and helped out. And I remember thinking then that, 'Wow, Kalamazoo is actually pretty great.'"

She recalls one rough summer in the mid-'90s. There was a heat wave outside, and inside "it was just brutal," with temperatures around 120 degrees by the oven.

Her staff walked out. She was alone in a hot bakery, "dough spilling all over everywhere."

She attempted to start baking, but couldn't cover the counter while in the back.

Customers just started pitching in, making change at the register, and doing other tasks.

One of her first employees from back in 1979, Larry Bell, came in and helped with the baking, though he had his own busy brewery to run.

Sarkozy's had an informal group, Table One, who met every Saturday morning for coffee and pastries. Made up of some Kalamazoo movers-n-shakers, they set up a list of volunteers. "And between August and Christmas, there were between two or four volunteers in there every single day, packaging bread, helping bake bread, cleaning up," she says. 

"It was unbelievable."

Four-day week

Sarkozy is picky about who she lets work for her. A high school kid came to her for a job once at the old bakery. "I told him to take a hike," she says

"Very, very politely," Wells says. He was the kid.

Wells was interested in baking and food in general as a teen. When he saw Sarkozy speak at First Baptist, he wanted to work for her.

Bakery Founder Judy Sarkozy and now half-owner Alec Wells have shared values for the business."You talked about how you treated your employees, just the way you treated your staff, and you wanted to provide a living wage for your employees, that resonated with me as a..."

She jokes, "As a nascent communist."

"Yeah, something like that. So, yeah, I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll go work for her.'"

Sarkozy had told teen Wells that she only hired full-time adults. That also resonated with him, that she wasn't getting by with cheap part-time help. "That's great that she — you're hiring people to make a career that they can live off of."

Can Sarkozy employees live off their paychecks? Do they make a living wage?

Customers love to check out the daily array of tempting cookies and pastries"I don't consider it a living wage," she says.

"They don't make enough," he says.

But employees do get health insurance, and 401(k) plans, and in recent years after they've gained enough experience at the bakery, they get a four-day week. 

Pay ranges from $15 to $21 an hour. For a bakery, or any food service job, "that's pretty good," she says. But they want to improve that. 

"We're figuring it out," she says. "And we're going to, by God."

A cozy nook filled with books at Sarkozy's Bakery.Their four-day week — that's four eight-hour days, with no reduction in employee's usual five-day paycheck — seemed particularly risky when they began it almost two years ago.

"I couldn't make it work on paper," she says.

"Having people work less, but paying them more," Wells says, "financially, that math doesn't make sense."

"We read all these studies that said people become more efficient, they live better lives, they become better employees when they have a whole extra day to do with what they make," he says. "Again, financially, it did not work on paper."

"But we decided we just had to do it," Sarkozy says.

She made the decision. After a lifetime of sweat, toil, and tragedy, Sarkozy took some time off.

Alec Wells, co-owner of Sarkozy Bakery."After Alec took on all these responsibilities, I took a three-day weekend. I had no idea, my god this is wonderful! Holy moly, we have to do this!" she says. "I didn't have a clue."

When she got back to work, Wells says, "She said, "Everyone needs this!' I'm not kidding, that's how it happened."

Did it work?

Sarkozy exclaims, "Oh god, it worked!"

"Tremendously, it worked," Wells says. "It takes a lot to get someone trained up to the point they can be efficient enough to drop a day but work better." 

Three-day weekends help make employees who are well-rested, motivated, and loyal, it seems. "People became much more efficient. Employee longevity has been insane," Wells says. 

Still baking baguettes — the French bread that started it all. Over half of their employees are four-day. Their goal is to get all new bakers up to that point.

Sarkozy says, "People chided me, 'You're not a social service agency.
"I can't say that we put how everyone is doing before profits, but our profits are low because that's what we're doing," she says. "It means that Alec and I are willing to tighten our belts." 

The co-owners make about as much as the employees, at times, "which is not very common, so you have to find some weirdo," she gestures toward Wells, "who understands why that's important." 

Wells says, "There's a direct correlation between what they put into this job and what they will get out of it. We're very honest with how much everyone makes and what our goals are. As a result, people are aware — I've had people straight-up say 'I know if I put in a little bit more and the bakery does a little bit better, I'll get a raise.' Wages go up collectively." 

The "open dialogue," he says, keeps employees motivated, "and it's a great way to depress them, too," he adds, laughing.

New shop, new era, new urbanism

The new shop isn't that new anymore. Since opening ten years ago this February, in 2014, the Michigan Avenue shop has found its footing despite its setting.

They're now in an old office building. "Well, when I first walked in this building, I said, 'I'm not going in that building. It's a tomb,'" Sarkozy says.

Now, with bakery-themed pop art on the walls, classic bebop jazz playing from the ceiling, and all the mouth-watering smells a bakery can produce, it feels like Sarkozy's.

But people have to stop and go inside, to state the obvious.

A view of the one way of Michigan Avenue from the Sarkozy Bakery window.The spot doesn't feel like a neighborhood, they both say.

"First of all, with all the traffic, it's wholly different," than the Burdick bakery, she says. "The street makes a difference."

"The other one was a neighborhood where people lived," Wells says. "This is a thoroughfare right now."

They have a lot of business people who work downtown, downtown residents, and students from the med school.

The bakery is doing well. "Kalamazoo is much healthier than it was then," Sarkozy says.

"We get people on the weekends who are clearly residents of downtown and are just wandering around their downtown and saying, 'Oh, this bakery is down the street from our apartment. Let's go check that out.' Which is good. I love that feeling," Wells says.

There are "way more" people living downtown now than when she got to Kalamazoo, Sarkozy says.

Where the magic happens: the massive ovens at Sarkozy's Bakery.They don't get many customers out of the people speeding by on Michigan, however. "You have to know we're here," Wells says. "Occasionally, you'll get a customer saying, "Oh, I drive by here all the time and I finally stopped by.'"

Sarkozy and Wells are fans of the "new urbanism" way of thinking — that having a city that people can live in can only be good for business.

"Let's get these bike lanes going! Let's get (into) the idea of the 15-minute city," Sarkozy says. The 15-minute city theory is that people living in a city should be able to get to basic services on foot or bike within 15 minutes from their homes. "This is a 15-minute city, and we can make it more walkable and more accessible and more fun," she says.

With the topic in the air, Sarkozy speaks on her hope that small electric vehicles might someday be on Michigan, and Wells says he's a fan of Jane Jacobs, a mid-century activist who fought against that era's urban renewal and displacement of minority neighborhoods. 

Slower traffic, smaller vehicles, "would make it much more livable downtown. Because when these trucks go by at 45 miles an hour, they shake the building," Sarkozy says.

"They're super heavy, You can't hold a conversation out there when you have one of those going by at 45 miles per hour," Wells says.

Wells continues, "And say what you will about the bike lanes and the problems they've introduced, but there are much fewer trucks coming down here as a shortcut through the city."

"And fewer accidents," Sarkozy says.

"We have a lot of people, a lot of bakers that bike to work who don't have a car, who choose not to have a car. And we even have two bakers that are moving from outside of the city into the Vine neighborhood, specifically so it'll be easier to walk to work, to bike to work," Wells says.

He adds, "My wife is fond of saying that this is the only town that she knows that people treat cutting through the center of the downtown as the fastest route. No other city is built to be the fastest way, from one way to the other, straight through the middle of the city. That's the most crowded part, that should be a slower part, that's just where people live. It's not a highway."

Next 50 years

Sarkozy sees a lot of change happening in the future. "This guy's generation is going to make that work," she says, pointing to Wells.

Sarkozy points out that they have an electric delivery van, and they're looking into converting bakery ovens from gas to electric. She's been very concerned about climate change since before they had to turn to Canadian oats.

Because of climate change, only oats from Canada are available now. Canadian oats affect the quality of their oat bread. "We had a very hard time making our oatmeal bread... that's going to happen with all of the fresh grains we get," she says.

What Sarkozy hopes will continue as a traditional bakery will have to adapt to change, she knows. 

Co-owners Alec Wells and Judy Sarkozy have a long history together.Sarkozy is 82, Wells is 33. "And his age group is really going to make a difference in that," she says about making Kalamazoo, and hopefully the planet, livable.

But the bakery? What is its future?

"Well, many, many years ago, one of our suppliers said to me, 'You know, bakeries like yours are going out of business.' This had to be 30 years ago," she says.

"So we survived that."

Wells is the future of Sarkozy's. "It's been wonderful to have Alec because we think a lot alike," she says.

"I've joked that he'll be young enough to be at the 100th anniversary. The 50th is coming up in four years," she says.

"So we need to figure out how we get there, and we need to constantly assess what we're doing and change where we need to, and hold onto the essence of whatever that thing, that community thing, is. We don't even know what it is, but we need to hold onto it," Sarkozy says.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.