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Mike and Stacey Marsh met on the campus of Michigan State University during the ‘80s. Marketing majors and food lovers, the pair opened Y&S Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 1990 a few years after graduation. An “upscale Subway,” the restaurant grew a large following due in part to the delicious wraps they served – created long before the sandwich wrap craze. But there was one part of the meal that customers seemed to love most: the unusual flatbread.
“Customers would say, ‘Why don’t you two bake these wraps and sell them?’” says Stacey. “We took that advice to heart and decided to go for it.”
They’d soon learn starting a flatbread company wasn’t a quick-rise process. Mike took courses at the American Bakers Association, where he received a formal education in the baking world. The couple acquired the needed the machinery through a used equipment broker. Dozens of flatbread recipes were tested using an informal test market of customers, family and friends. And three long years later, Stacey and Mike had a flatbread they would be proud to sell to customers.
While suppliers gave the couple guidance and customers and family offered support, Stacey says it was passion that kept the couple going, working at the restaurant and developing the product.
The name ‘Flatout’ came out of a creative process and it just felt right, says Stacey. “As a brand, we wanted a non-ethnic flatbread,” she says. “Most of the other flatbreads are Mexican tortillas or Mediterranean pitas. Flatout as a name gave us the chance to be all-American. Flatout recipes can go in so many ways there are no ‘Flatout limits.’”
The first wholesale account was with Northwest Airlines, acquired after a Northwest employee came into the deli for lunch. Stacey asked him if she could speak to their food service team, and he put her in touch with the right people. Soon after, Flatout bread was being served in Northwest’s first-class meals. Sales to United Airlines followed, and then McDonalds of Canada purchased Flatouts for its McWrap. Stacey held the training for McDonalds on how to build an in-store wrap program.
Next, it was time to go after grocery stores. “We targeted Michigan and sold Flatout wraps to Giant Eagle, Kroger, Meijer and Ukrops as well as local Michigan stores and chains,” says Stacey.
But challenges came. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Stacey. “We had to learn on the fly about distribution, packaging and selling. Our passion for the Flatout overcame a great deal of the challenges and we never looked back.”
The Marshes knew they had made it when Walmart decided to roll out the product from a few locations to its all of its stores in America. “Once that happened, we started to get calls from other chains asking for the product,” says Stacey.
As entrepreneurs, Stacey and Mike have come a long way since the idea was served up to them 20 years ago. “We’ve learned to be decisive, nimble and quick,” says Stacey. “We react to market opportunities and quickly take advantage of them. This allows us to compete with much larger companies with far greater resources.”
The company recently underwent a $1.5 million expansion at its Saline, Mich. facility to help keep up with demand. The business now has about 140 employees, a few of those who have been with the company since day one.
The secret to the flatbread’s success? Flat-out passion. “Love what you do, and always put customers first,” says Stacey. “My mother and father have always said, ‘Never look back and say what if…’ And we never did.”