On a desk inside an office on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Industrial Drive, Marty Carrier picks up an old recipe card. You can still crusted dough on the card, which provides a recipe for the classic Bill Knapp’s chocolate cake. But Carrier doesn't let you take too long a look. He's not swapping recipes.
“It’s the original, old fashioned recipe, made with natural ingredients,” said Carrier, managing partner for Bill Knapp’s LLC. “It’s the same cake people love from the restaurants.”
Soon, you’ll be able to buy that cake and many more items at a Bill Knapp’s outlet store, located at 1400 E. Michigan Ave., Ste. E.
For years, since the family-style restaurant chain folded in the early 2000s, the Bill Knapp’s brand has lived on in grocery stores. In Michigan, you can find the Bill Knapp’s cakes, dunkers, donut holes and other goods at retailers like Kroger, Meijer and Spartan stores.
The inaugural outlet store is part of an effort to broaden the market for Bill Knapp’s baked goods in the era of home. Carrier and his small team, who’ve been managing the business out of their Saline office for two years, are also preparing the launch of an internet ordering service to connect customers with their product.
“We feel we need to be a little closer to the retail environment and have a better understanding of our customers’ reactions to our products,” Carrier said.
Right now, Bill Knapp’s sells through 20 wholesalers in 30 different states. Until recently, the Saline location has been a sales office dedicated to getting the Bill Knapp’s branded goods in grocery stores. And they’ve done so well their original plans to open the outlet store have been delayed.
“We’re finally at the point where I think we can do it,” Carrier said.
They anticipate the web store going up first and the outlet store following a few weeks later. It could all happen within weeks.
“When you see the big, lit sign from Michigan Avenue, you’ll know we are open,” Carrier said.
Expect to see Bill Knapp’s products and representatives at events in Saline and around the metro Detroit area. Carrier hopes to have products at events like the Saline Craft Show.
Carrier is a Saline area resident whose children went to Saline Area Schools. He’s owner of Bill Knapp’s LLC with several silent partners.
How Carrier came to be the owner of Bill Knapp’s is a long and winding story. Carrier is the grandson of Thomas Awrey, one of the founding brothers of Awrey’s Bakery, founded in Detroit and now operating in Livonia. Awrey’s Bakery began baking cakes for the Bill Knapp’s restaurant chain, was founded in Battle Creek and which had grown to 60 restaurants in five states with popular home-style meals and a family-friendly atmosphere. In Ann Arbor there were locations on Carpenter Road, State Street and at the Westgate shopping plaza.
“They were always near freeway exits, which helped make them ideal for family gatherings, for birthdays and celebrations,” Carrier said.
But the company went bankrupt and by the end of 2002, all of the restaurants had closed.
Awrey’s Bakery acquired the rights to several recipes and Carrier’s group bought the company 14 years ago.
“We bought the brand and all the recipes for the food people loved. After all the restaurants closed, the job was to bring it back,” Carrier said. “We receive so many requests from people who loved Bill Knapp’s. It’s amazing how powerful those memories are.”
When Carrier attends trade shows and conferences, he’s peppered with questions from people who fondly remember Bill Knapp’s experiences. A few years ago, he received an email from a Wall Street Journal sportswriter who wanted to know how he could acquire the famous chocolate cake. Carrier sent 20 cakes to his office, hoping it might result in good publicity. The Wall Street Journal didn’t write about the product. But Carrier received and email from the appreciative sportswriter. It contained what he called the “best review” you could ever ask for.
“He said that when he finally was able to taste our cake, he suddenly realized that, all his life, he’d been judging all cakes against the Bill Knapp’s chocolate cake,” Carrier said.