In The Beginning...
In 1976 whole wheat bread didn’t exist, at least not on a viable commercial basis. People ate white bread and they bought it from the grocery store. All that changed in 1976 when Pete and Laura Wakeman opened the
original Great Harvest Bread store
in Great Falls, Montana. Pete and Laura were a young couple that just graduated from college. They actually put themselves through school by making and selling bread from a roadside stand back in Connecticut.
After graduating they drove out West to take a little hiking trip along the Continental Divide from Yellowstone Park to Glacier Park. At the end of the hike they couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than Montana and eventually settled in Great Falls.
They noticed an old bakery on First Avenue North that had closed and they inquired about buying some of the equipment. As the story goes, at the time Pete and Laura had about $200 cash to their name but with some smart negotiating, a lot of hard work, and plenty of cleaning and restoring of the building and equipment, they opened the doors to Great Harvest. People still talk about the line of people stretching all the way down the block, waiting to buy hot, fresh, whole-wheat bread.
Within a couple of years Pete and Laura started the Franchise operation and in 1982 they decided to sell the original bakery and devote themselves fulltime to growing the Franchise. That is when I, Pete Rysted, came into Great Harvest.
The Year Was 1982... Enter Pete Rysted
In 1982 I was living in Minneapolis but wishing that I lived in the West. In the economic recession of 1982 I had recently lost my job and for the first time in my life I was out of work. Unemployment was at least 9% as I recall and the prime lending rate hit 23%. I didn’t really want another job, it turned out I had one of those inherent genes that made me destined for self-employment. One desperate Sunday morning I needed to take action so I looked in the
want ads and my eyes gravitated to a small ad that read:
Whole Wheat Bread Store For Sale in Great Falls, Montana
. I swear it was the only ad I saw.
Four days later I was in Great Falls looking at the bakery and six weeks later I had sold everything, borrowed money from every possible source (nothing less than 19% interest by the way), and moved my family to Great Falls and bought myself a job and a bakery. I was like a pig in mud. I was right where I was supposed to be. I’d found my calling.
The Long & The Short Of It
That is the condensed version of course. The long version is even more fascinating but just so the magnitude of this isn’t lost on anyone let me recap this. In mid July of 1982 I was unemployed and the job prospects were very bleak. Six weeks later I owned my own business and was living in Montana. With 23% interest rates no one was buying or selling anything; cars, houses, TV’s, or businesses. Somehow I managed to sell my house within a few weeks (only one person looked at it) in a market where it was common for a house to sit for nearly a year.
From 1976 Until Now
So, in 1976 no one made whole wheat bread and specialty bread stores didn’t exist. I don’t think many people gave Pete and Laura much chance of long-term survival in business. In 1982 I don’t think any normal person would have given me any better odds of surviving.
As of 2012 Great Harvest is now 36 years old. I have been making bread for 30 years. Great Harvest has over 230 stores across the country — including Alaska & Hawaii — selling over $100 million worth of bread and products. You can buy a wide variety of breads in grocery stores these days and specialty bread stores in addition to Great Harvest are all over the country. America has changed the way it buys and eats bread. Strange as it seems, it all began with one little bread store in Great Falls, Montana. I wonder what the next thirty years will bring?
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