Bill Knapp's Is Back
The restaurant's bakery favorites live on in Saline.
by Tran Longmoore
Published in November, 2019
On a desk inside an office on the southeast corner of Michigan Ave. and Industrial Dr., Marty Carrier picks up an old recipe card. You can still see crusted dough on the recipe for the classic Bill Knapp's chocolate cake. But Carrier doesn't let you look too long. He's not swapping recipes.
"It's the original, old-fashioned recipe, made with natural ingredients," says 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 Bill Knapp's Bakery Outlet.
Though the family-style restaurant chain folded in the early 2000s, you can find Bill Knapp's cakes, dunkers, donut holes, and other goods at stores like Kroger, Meijer, and Spartan. The store is part of an effort to broaden the market.
Carrier and his small team, who've been managing the business out of their Saline office for the past two years, are also preparing to launch an online store. "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," he says.
Right now, Bill Knapp's sells through twenty wholesalers in thirty different states. Until recently, the Saline location has been a sales office dedicated to getting the branded goods into grocery stores. They've done so well that their original plans to open brick-and-mortar and online stores have been delayed.
"We're finally at the point where I think we can do it," Carrier says.
They're looking to roll out online ordering at the end of November, "if not a little bit sooner," says outlet store manager Emily Plummer. The store itself should be ready in time for the holidays.
"When you see the big, lit sign from Michigan Avenue, you'll know we are open," Carrier says.
Carrier is a Saline-area resident whose children went to Saline Area Schools. He owns Bill Knapp's LLC with several silent partners.
Carrier is the grandson of Thomas Awrey, one
of the founding brothers of Awrey's Bakery, which started in Detroit and now operates in Livonia.
Awrey's began baking cakes for the Bill Knapp's restaurant chain, which was founded in Battle Creek and grew to sixty restaurants serving home-style meals in a family-friendly atmosphere.
"They were always near freeway exits, which helped make them ideal for family gatherings, for birthdays and celebrations," Carrier says. But an abortive effort to attract a younger clientele failed, and the company went bankrupt. By the end of 2002 all of the restaurants had closed.
Awrey's acquired the rights to the company's intellectual property and sold them to Carrier's group fourteen 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 says. "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 twenty cakes to his office, hoping it might result in good publicity.
The paper didn't write about the product, but Carrier did get an email from the appreciative sportswriter. It contained what he calls 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 says.
Bill Knapp's Bakery Outlet, 1400 E. Michigan Ave., ste. E. billknapps.com
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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