Alon’s owner looks back at 25 years in business

When Israeli native Alon Balshan stepped off a plane in New York to embark on a new life in the late 1980s, the then-25-year-old hoped he would find success. However, the professionally trained chef with a penchant for pastries did not suspect that he would quickly migrate to Atlanta, nor that, just six years later, he would open a bakery that would become an essential part of Atlanta’s food scene.

Alon’s Bakery & Market celebrates 25 years this weekend. On Sunday, Balshan and his wife, Janine, are hosting a shebang at the Morningside location at 1394 N. Highland Ave. There will be food, music, raffles and more. The event is free and open to all.

“I feel that I owe a thank-you to all the people that supported us in the beginning. Without those customers, I wouldn’t have that business,” he said.

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Sitting on the patio at Alon’s in Dunwoody, a location that he opened in 2008, Balshan reflected on the early days of the bakery and an evolution that has included multiple expansions, menu morphs, the addition of a market with cheeses, wine and artisanal foodstuffs, a deli with an array of prepared foods, a wholesale baked goods division and a catering arm.

Balshan opened Alon’s in 1992. Prior to that, he worked for three years at nearby Murphy’s Restaurant (in its original location) as its pastry chef. That’s how he fell in love with the neighborhood, recounted Balshan.

When a 1,300-square-foot space opened up on North Highland Avenue, he had all of $10,000 in cash. But with a few extra bucks from his father and the power of credit cards, he took the plunge and went into business for himself.

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Balshan envisioned Alon’s as a cafe where he could bake sweets and serve them with coffee. There were eclairs, croissants, danishes, cookies. There were sandwiches, too, made with his own freshly baked bread. But sell his bread?

“I didn’t intend to make bread to sell,” said Balshan, whose company has become known for its breads and bakes some 3,000 loaves a day for sale at its stores and distributed to 50 wholesale clients — mainly restaurants — throughout Atlanta.

When a concept resonates with a community, it tends to grow and evolve. That’s what happened at Alon’s. In 2000, it expanded when it took over the space next door. Four years later, it swallowed the other remaining storefront and blew up the idea of the neighborhood marketplace by offering deli items and all the necessities for putting together a quick meal, throwing a dinner party or attending one with a hostess gift.

The Dunwoody location is a behemoth at 11,000 square feet compared to the early days of Alon’s with its tiny 300-square-foot front counter area. Besides a beer and wine bar, it also has a wood-burning oven used for pizza, pita, blistered vegetables and more.

Among his current 170 employees, some have been with Balshan for the long haul. Like Therese Gionet-Suave, a manager at the Dunwoody location who has worked at Alon’s for 23 of its 25 years.

Like Gionet-Suave, some things at Alon’s don’t change. Balshan still works six days a week. “His hand touches everything – in a good way,” said Alon’s director of events and marketing, DeEtte Kattel.

“It’s a pursuit of perfection,” Balshan said.

What will the coming years bring? Another location, perhaps? Perhaps, responded Balshan. Or it could be a different concept altogether, he added.

His focus right now, though, is “to refine what’s going on.” The catering division of Alon’s has grown 20 percent year over year since 2014. “That keeps us pretty busy,” he said. And then there’s the staff and training them. Success in this business, he noted, is “all about the people.”

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