Bakery melds the taste of East Africa with American dream

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2011 - 7:46 PM
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East African Bakery owner Francesco O’Ryan with injera, left, and hambasha. He designed and built the machine that makes the loaves.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Francesco O'Ryan, owner of the East African Bakery, launched his company in 2000 to satisfy a craving, shared by tens of thousands of other African immigrants in Minnesota, for the breads he grew up eating.

Ethnic markets soon snapped up East African Bakery's spongy injera bread -- a staple eaten with meat or vegetarian sauces at most meals by Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis -- and its sweet hambasha bread, often eaten as a snack or used for sandwiches, O'Ryan explained. The flatbreads also are served in some restaurants and are on the shelves at the Seward and Wedge co-ops in Minneapolis and the Holy Land deli.

Now O'Ryan's focus is to expand to mainstream grocery stores throughout the Twin Cities, a push that may begin in a month or two, and eventually to other cities and states. And he's getting some high-powered help from food company giants Cargill Inc. and General Mills.

O'Ryan turned to the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that offers consulting, training, business planning and financial assistance to minority-owned business.

MEDA responded by tapping into expertise from Cargill and General Mills. Both companies have executives serving on MEDA's board of directors. MEDA also connected East African Bakery with another client, Knock, a 50-person, decade-old branding, advertising and design firm in Minneapolis.

Cargill is working with O'Ryan to extend the freshness of the flatbreads, General Mills' photographers have produced colorful product images to use in marketing materials, and Knock is creating branding and a marketing campaign for East African Bakery, according to MEDA business consultan Uri Camarena.

The high-level expertise MEDA has enlisted is unusual, Camarena said, and reflects the confidence the organization and its corporate partners have in O'Ryan.

"You see the ability for this client to take advice, to follow up on that advice and execute it," Camarena said. "We have been coaching him through it, but he has been executing."

Said O'Ryan: "I believe in their expertise. That's what they do best. The least I could do is listen and take advice from professionals."

A machinist turned entrepreneur/inventor and baker, O'Ryan works overnight the better part of seven days a week with his wife, Nebiat Mekonnen, and eight other employees to produce the bread.

He designed and built the large machine that automates the traditional process of making the circular injera and hambasha loaves by hand. He's proud of his creation, which makes commercial-scale production possible. But he's careful to keep it under wraps while he considers patenting his design and perhaps one day producing the machines for sale.

O'Ryan was just 21 when he arrived in the United States in 1990. He studied to be a machinist at St. Paul Technical College and was managing a machine shop when he left to start the bakery. He returned to the college last year for a six-month culinary program, while continuing to oversee bakery operations.

O'Ryan and Mekonnen, who have five children, used home equity to start the company. After renting commercial kitchen space, they bought and renovated the University Avenue building where the bakery operates. Revenue was $380,000 in 2010, according to O'Ryan.

Besides extending product freshness, Cargill food scientists also are working with O'Ryan to standardize production to ensure consistent results and to choose ingredients that will help improve his profit margins, said Serge-Alain Wandji, senior intellectual asset manager at Cargill.

"I'm personally passionate about helping minority business and, looking at Francesco's experience, would really like to help him succeed," Wandji said. "It's a good product, people like it, and it's inspiring to see that entrepreneurial drive."

Tim Coats, a MEDA board member and vice president of worldwide sourcing at General Mills, said he toured the bakery and found it to be "an impressive operation with a lot of ingenuity."

Knock President Lili Hall said her firm's efforts with O'Ryan have included developing a new version of the bakery's lion-and-sunburst logo and packaging that will appeal to existing and new customers. "He always brings his bread to the office for meetings, and as soon as he leaves, the whole staff is in the kitchen eating," Hall said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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  • EAST AFRICAN BAKERY

    Sunday May 1, 2011

    Business: Makes and sells fresh, authentic breads of East Africa -- injera and hambasha -- available at ethnic markets, the Seward and Wedge co-ops in Minneapolis and the Holy Land...

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