With eye on future, Judy Sarkozy sells share of Kalamazoo bakery to 32-year-old understudy

KALAMAZOO, MI — Judy Sarkozy is nearing her 81st birthday, but the beloved Kalamazoo baker has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

Yet for the first time in the 44 years she has owned and operated Sarkozy’s Bakery in downtown Kalamazoo, there is a straightforward succession plan in place for the future of the business she founded in 1978.

Related: 10 years after Kalamazoo bakery burned, Judy Sarkozy reflects on community that saved it

Earlier this month, Sarkozy signed over half of the bakery’s ownership shares to 32-year-old general manager, and now co-owner, Alec Wells.

Alec Wells and Judy Sarkozy sell bread at the newly renovated Kalamazoo Farmers Market in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Saturday, May 7, 2022. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)Joel Bissell | MLive.com

“There’s a possibility with him being around that the institution of the bakery can last much longer and that’s very exciting,” said Sarkozy, who still works about 45 hours per week at the bakery. “We hope that it gives us some sustainability for the future. It’s a wonderful thing, for me and for the bakery.”

Sarkozy joked that at her age some of her employees think she is “going to fall over any minute.”

“It’s important for them to know their jobs are safe,” she said with a smile.

Sarkozy said a few years ago she had given up on the idea that someone would eventually take the bakery over, but it wasn’t long after Wells began working as a baker there in the latter half of 2019 that the duo’s partnership began to take shape .

“He just naturally started taking responsibility for things,” she said. “I had hoped that something like this would eventually happen, but you can’t plan for that. He understands the bakery and the community. He’s at ease in his role and he just has a knack for working with people.

“Plus, he loves baking.”

It was that love for baking, something that started at an early age for Wells, that led to him first applying for a job at Sarkozy’s as a 17-year-old high school senior.

To his chagrin, he was turned down.

“I was mortified,” he said. “I thought, oh no, that was a terrible interview. She she must have hated me.”

While Wells now knows that to be the furthest thing from the truth, and he considers his friendship with the 80-year-old Sarkozy to be among his most treasured, much of that interview stays with him to this day.

In addition to Sarkozy telling him to come back when he was older — which he eventually did after earning his degree at Michigan State University and then working in Hawaii as an archeologist — one thing that resonated was Sarkozy telling him that she only hired full-timers . She wanted to make sure the jobs she was creating were jobs with which people could support themselves.

Related: Local Eats: The bread keeps rising at Sarkozy Bakery in Kalamazoo

“She’s really focused on making Sarkozy’s a place where the employees can make a career out of working there and supporting themselves,” he said. “Trying to create a really health work environment in the food industry is rare.”

That’s something he has no intention of changing as the two work side by side, writing Sarkozy’s next chapter together, something both individuals find easy.

“We have similar senses of humor, similar values ​​when it comes to how to treat co-workers, and employees, and people. And similar dreams for Kalamazoo and how we want the city to continue to grow and flourish,” Wells said. “And just personally, Judy and I get along really, really well.”

Wells said he is slightly intimidated transitioning into an ownership rule of such a longstanding Kalamazoo institution, but he takes comfort knowing Sarkozy has no plans of retiring.

“Since I started there, she now works five days a week instead of seven and I think that’s about as much retirement as I think she’s looking for,” he said. “This is definitely a partnership and I want her there as much as she wants to be there. She has such a wealth of knowledge and experience and I definitely take every opportunity to learn from her.

“Fortunately, I get to start on that ladder where she’s already at, of what she’s already built.”

Wells, who returned to his hometown after his fiancée, Callie Rodriguez, accepted a graphic design job at Kellogg’s, said buying into Sarkozy’s allows him to cement his roots in Kalamazoo that much more.

He knows he has a job to do if he wants to stay, though.

“If I want to keep living in Kalamazoo I need to make sure Sarkozy’s Bakery continues to thrive and do well,” Wells said. “If it ever shuts down under my watch, I’d probably have to move.”

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