Mediterra Cafe: Perfecting soft pretzels and artisan baked goods with timeless craft
Nestled in the Sewickley business district on Beaver Street, Mediterra Cafe is a combination bakery, cafe, and artisan food market owned by the Ambeliotis family. In 2001, the Ambeliotis family first opened up artisan wholesale bakery Mediterra Bakehouse in Pittsburgh. Mediterra Cafe is the family's first brick-and-mortar café in the Pittsburgh area.
After the contest, we had a chance to sit down and chat with Anthony Ambeliotis, the Production Manager at Mediterra Bakehouse and Mediterra Cafe.
How long has your family been in the baking business?
We opened up Mediterra Bakehouse in Pittsburgh at the end of 2001, almost 18 years ago. About 6-7 years ago, we opened up a bakery in Phoenix, and last June, we opened Mediterra Cafe in Sewickley. We've grown all organically and tried to do everything the right way, so that we never ever put the integrity of our product in jeopardy.
How is everyone in your family involved in the business?
It's probably taken 18 years for everyone to "settle" into a role, but my dad started it alone in 2001. He was alone for the first 6 years, and then my older brother came in. Currently Mike is the GM of the entire company, he runs the business side of things. I joined in 2009, and I'm the way in the back as the Production Manager. I run everything production-wise, bread-wise.
My younger sister Nicole came in after she graduated from Pitt, and she does all the bookkeeping and helps run the cafe. Her husband Garrett is the Head of Sales. My brother Mike’s wife Andrea runs the pastry department. My little brother Nick works in the back with me as the Head Baker. And there are two adopted brothers from Guatemala, Chris and Juan, who are in production in the back with me. It's all family, but we all work really well together.
What’s the best part of running a business with your family?
I think it's twofold, it's that you don't have to censor what you say to them: that can be really good or really bad. You can be totally frank and honest without having to worry about hurting their feelings. It boosts productivity because you can have these open discussions. And we're Greek, too, so it's like, say what you want to say. But I would say the best part is the trust and loyalty. Because you know the family's going to put the best interest of the business first, they're going to stay loyal to the business.
What made you decide to open up a brick-and-mortar storefront in Sewickley?
It's a long answer for us. Before the bakery, my dad was involved in his family grocery store, and he made the grocery store into a specialty food store. In the 80's, he was recognized as one of the top 10 specialty food stores in America, and this was a small little town in Ohio. His passion has always been in specialty and finer foods.
And then there was the fact that we've been in Pittsburgh for almost 20 years, and sometimes people don't even know who we are. We're in 120 Whole Foods on the East Coast, but if you ask a random stranger in Pittsburgh about Mediterra Bakehouse, nobody even knows us. We're doing this naturally leavened bread, growing and milling our own grains—doing stuff that people are doing on Instagram now. But we've been doing it for 20 years before it was even cool.
We needed to really brand ourselves. Sewickley was always a great community to us. It was one of our first farmers markets, and so it made sense to open Mediterra Cafe here. We have so much talent in the family and everybody was assigned to do something for the cafe. That way, it made something that seemed real daunting, not so daunting.
How does it feel knowing that you've been voted Best Soft Pretzel in Pittsburgh?
Amazing! Everything we do, we try to do the best, not taking any shortcuts and using the best ingredients. More importantly for us, it's all about the process. It really does mean a lot that our hard work is noticed by people.
What makes a good pretzel? What makes your pretzel unique?
What makes a good pretzel—like anything else in the bread family—number one, it has to taste right. Regardless of the way it looks, what flour you use, what fermentation you use, it's got to taste right. At the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters.
But I think you arise to that point by doing everything else right. It has to have the right texture, the right color, and a little chew to it. The diameter is also important because it brings out a mouthfeel that's right. Like I said, you arise to all those points by following the correct process, from beginning to end. Starting at sourcing the best ingredients, using the best ingredients.
Besides pretzels, what other products do you offer at the cafe?
We offer our entire range of breads and pastries, croissants, all the breads. Soups and salads, all the things you'd expect at a cafe, just elevated in quality. But one of the things that I'm most proud of, besides our pretzel, is our pizza. I learned to make Roman style pizza from who's considered the Roman pizza expert in the world. I took what I learned from him and applied some of my bread and dough knowledge. I worked with our chefs to come up with the best sauce and worked with my dad to source the best cheese. I'm really proud of our pizza. But again, that story doesn't matter unless you put it in your mouth and taste it, and you say, "Oh my god, this is amazing." So that's the bottom line. That story leads to the final destination, which is the taste.
Where do you draw inspiration for your new dishes and flavors?
For me, personally, what's on the outside doesn't matter. For me, it's on the inside. I have a deep, deep rooted passion for food, and I've been in the food business my entire life. I fell in love with bread, and the process of bread, because it's something that will never, ever, ever be fully mastered. I’m always continually trying to perfect the craft. Even if you think what you're doing is good, it can always be better. That's what drives me. Every day we've got a new chance to try to make our bread better, our pizza better, our pretzels better. Every single day. For me, it never gets old.
How do you know when it's time to grow your business?
The cool thing about our company is, there are so many people at the top who would answer that question differently. If it were just me, I'm so quality oriented that I would probably be conservative in growing the business. That being said, I'm all about growing organically, and doing short leaps and then plateau for a while, then another leap, and then plateau for a while. The shortest way for me to answer that is, you grow your business when you can do more output at the same or better quality.
Visit Mediterra Café at 430 Beaver Street in Sewickley, PA. They're open 7 am-5 pm on Monday through Saturday and 8 am-3 pm on Sunday. Check out all the tasty treats they offer here.