After operating The Bakehouse in downtown Aberdeen for 14 years, Martin and Mireia Brunner have arranged a turn-key sale to David and Ginny Tran, part owners of Agora Bakery and Cafe in Pinehurst.
The sale, finalized March 1, flew under the radar for many customers, mainly because The Bakehouse’s operations have been business as usual. The Trans say they plan to keep it that way, leaving the recipes (yes, including your beloved Barcelona burger) largely unchanged while keeping Martin and his staff on as consultants through the transition.
As for Martin? The fifth-generation baker will focus on what’s become his No. 1 passion: teaching.
“I Feel Like It’s in Good Hands”
Martin began considering selling the business in 2019, but it wasn’t until last year that he enlisted the help of commercial real estate broker Holly Bell of Bell Manley Properties. Quietly, she began putting out feelers. Eventually she told him she “might know just the guy,” and introduced him to David.
Bell knew that Tran, who opened Agora Bakery with partners Robert and April Bortins in September 2021, was looking for opportunities to expand his entrepreneurial footprint.
“Originally, we were just in the market to buy a building,” David said. “Then I met Martin and his team, and saw how family oriented they were. I saw they have a faithful staff and a very faithful following. And so I asked myself, ‘why would I buy something like this and not keep the tradition and the story going?’”
Over the next few months, the two families formulated a plan to transfer ownership.
“People ask, ‘won’t you miss it?,’ and I say no, because I do what I love,” says Martin, who is a full-time professor and coordinator of Sandhills Community College’s Baking and Pastry Arts department.
“I will miss the interaction with my customers, but I get to bake in my classes while teaching, which are two of the best things in the perfect package. I didn’t turn my back on the business. I view my students as my product. I’m glad I was able to set somebody up to take over The Bakehouse and continue its success. I feel like it’s in good hands.”
“Our goal is to say, OK, what can we learn from The Bakehouse and what can The Bakehouse learn from us?” David says. “We are a lot more modern when it comes to technology and processes, but they have recipes that are five generations old. And how awesome is that, just to be handed all of that history that we’re able to carry on to the next generation? That’s what we’ve really decided to do.”
Built from the Bottom Up
Josef Brunner’s bakery was established in Austria just after World War II. In the early 1990s, Josef’s son and business heir, Kurt, sold everything and moved the operation to Fayetteville; in 1996, the family brought the business to downtown Aberdeen. It was there that Martin met Mireia, whose parents Dolores and Pedro, both natives of Barcelona, owned and operated Cafe Mediterraneo on N.C. 5.
Eventually, the two families joined forces and combined menus in a new location. When the Brunners discovered the current building in downtown Aberdeen — built in 1948, the same year The Bakehouse was founded — they knew they’d found just the place. The day the restaurant opened, Martin says, “people were lined up to get that Barcelona burger.” It was Dolores’ recipe, made famous at Cafe Mediterraneo.
“Because we’re a European bakery, it’s funny that it was the burger that mainly drew people in,” Brunner said. “But then I noticed that we were educating the consumer to start buying fresh baked, quality bread. As people became more familiar with the place, our pastry and bread sales exploded, and we became known for wedding and birthday cakes. We worked really hard to get our name out there and build the reputation the place has today.”
In the same way, Brunner has worked to build up the culinary program at Sandhills Community College, where he’s been teaching since 2003 and a full-time professor since 2007.
“This program grew so big, so fast. I’ve made the ranks of distinguished professor here at the college. There’s a lot of administrative work to do. I’m on committees, we’re making a lot of changes here at the school. I’m committed to Sandhills.
“What you want to do as you get at the top of your career is give back, and this is more fulfilling than anything else I could imagine doing.”
‘We Want to Take Care of People’
Since opening The Bakehouse in downtown Aberdeen in 2008, Martin and Mireia Brunner have enjoyed an abundance of loyal staff, fostered by Martin’s love of teaching and the couple’s familial leadership. The business was built on four pillars — bread, pastry, kitchen and counter — each led by a member of the Brunner family. Employees in each department received uniforms embroidered with their name. The team ate meals together. After the busy Christmas season, staff celebrated by a Michael-Bay-inspired demolition of the restaurant’s display gingerbread house.
“There were some Christmases where I remember working right through the night, and my dedicated team members were right along with me,” Martin says. “The people I have had working for me over the years have been unbelievable, and many of them have gone on to own their own businesses or find success elsewhere. It’s been an honor to work with people like that.”
The Trans want to continue that leadership as much as the business itself. Their recent efforts have landed Katelyn Lindsey, a longtime resort chef, who will serve as the head pastry chef of both The Bakehouse and Agora.
“We asked ourselves, how can we make a personal impact? How can we take care of people? By giving them a good quality of life through employment,” David says. “Keeping that legacy going, and building off of it, is what’s really important for me.”