The African continent is home to more than 50 countries, and almost every one has its own national bread — sometimes more than one, says Atlanta baker John Blay.
Most Ethiopians eat the spongy injera at every meal. The Sudanese prefer the pancakelike kisra. In Liberia, it's a spicy rice bread.
But from a small factory in Norcross, Blay and his wife, Gladys, natives of Ghana, are toiling to make their own national favorite, Ghanaian tea bread, a staple on the tables of metro Atlanta's African transplants. In fact, Blay says, "I want to target not just Africans; you want to target Americans."
From Bel's Bakery, the Blays supply African and Caribbean markets in the area with their tea bread, as well as two derivations: buns bread, a less sweet version, and sweet bread, with almost enough sugar to land it on a dessert menu. All three are made with soft, white winter wheat.
The business began when Gladys was at home with the couple's second daughter, 10-year-old Belinda. "When I had my baby, I was not able to work," she says. So she fell back on her family heritage: bread baking.
In Accra, Ghana's capital city, Gladys Blay's family ran the popular Pearl's Bakery, but while she grew up around bread and baking, she never expected to be a baker herself, she says. "I didn't have to bake bread [in Ghana]. We had someone who did it for us. When I first told my sister I was starting a bakery here, she said, 'Who will do your baking?' I really laughed. I said, 'We will.' . . . So this is what I did: I started baking."
Meanwhile, John Blay was finishing his master's degree in business administration at Mercer University. But, MBA in hand, he soon ran into career roadblocks. "Getting a job was tough because I had no experience," he says. His undergraduate degree was in French and Russian, and he had taught high school in Ghana.
And then, he had an idea. "I wrote my thesis on the Apple Computer company," he says. "That company came from nothing. It was talent and knowledge and hard work. So I said, 'We'll start from the kitchen. [Gladys has] the talent, and I have the knowledge.' "
Thus began two years of 18- to 20-hour days working in their licensed home kitchen in Duluth, turning out the fragrant golden loaves fellow Ghanaians craved.
Within two years, the enterprise had outgrown the Blay kitchen, and the company found factory space in a row of warehouses along Buford Highway. With the move came more sophisticated equipment, automated systems and the hiring of one baker.
John Blay arrives at the bakery at about 4 a.m. daily to load dozens of tins of the risen loaves into industrial walk-in ovens. The comforting aroma of bread wafts into the parking lot before Gladys arrives around 8 a.m. Then comes preparation of dough for the next day's output. Using a "secret recipe," John Blay pours "the highest-quality ingredients" into massive mixers. Another machine kneads the dough and forms it into balls that are then laid out on a butcher block counter and covered with damp cheesecloth. Each ball is later fed through a roller, emerging as a jellyroll-style loaf that goes into a bread tin and then onto rolling racks to rise. "It takes 12 to 18 hours of preparation time to get the right taste," says John Blay.
After baking, the loaves are packaged whole, and Blay begins his delivery route, visiting more than three dozen markets. All the Blays' business is wholesale; they do not sell retail to walk-in customers.
The tea bread continues to be the most popular — especially among the more traditional Ghanaians. But as immigrants from elsewhere on the continent try Bel's breads, demand has grown for the less-sweet version, buns bread, and the richest, sweet bread.
Of course, Bel's breads are a staple on the Blay family table. "My little girl eats bread three or four times a day," Gladys says, laughing.
John Blay admits to snacking throughout his work day, too. "I eat it morning and night," he says. "Plain, peanut butter, jam, marmalade."
It's one perk in a job with long hours of hard work, he says. "But I love my job. I'm an MBA, and I'm doing what MBAs do. We start a business, and we manage it."