Healthy options satisfy the growing East Liberty community at Great Harvest Food Company


julie p

It begins in Montana and ends in Pittsburgh. The wheat is harvested from the flowing plains of Montana where it is ground into fresh flour, shipped across the country to Pittsburgh and then baked into bread at 6401 Penn Avenue in East Liberty.

It is there that the Great Harvest Bread Company proudly stands. Owned by Tom Katsafanas and his wife Erin, it is the only Pittsburgh location of the Dillon, Montana-based Great Harvest Bread Company franchise. According to the company’s website, its philosophy is “about customer experience and the promise of phenomenal tasting products made with freshly-milled whole grain and pure and simple ingredients.” And that’s just what you’ll find when you enter the bakery.

There is a sense of wellness in the air that can be felt from your first step inside the building. Familiar tunes mix with catchy alternative music, and hanging spherical lights give the shop a sophisticated feel.

The walls are complimentary shades of purple and green and artwork produced by young children and professional artists adorn them. The nose is confused—but in a good way. It can’t tell if the aroma wafting from the kitchen is sweet like cinnamon or tart like yeast. In the end, the nose just knows that something smells good. Though the space may seem small, it is designed cleverly: a low wall separates the ordering area from the sitting space and patrons can either sit at it or at the tables along the big windows.

As you approach the counter to read the menu, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the man behind the operation, Tom Katsafanas, as he bakes or works in his office. Tom grew up in East Liberty before moving to New England where he worked for an ad agency. After looking at buildings in Mount Lebanon, Squirrel Hill and Lawrenceville, Tom settled on East Liberty as the site for his store. His decision was based on East Liberty’s redevelopment, its growth and its energy: “The changes that are occurring in this market with the growth potential, with the opening of the East Liberty streets, it just looked like a win-win for anybody who wants to establish a business here,” he says.

Many factors drew him to the Great Harvest Bread Company. “I actually like the concept of the franchise. It’s a freedom franchise. You can kind of do whatever you want to do with your operation; you’re not restricted in any way.” For example, some franchises require stores to look and run the same so that you could be in any city in the U.S. With the Great Harvest franchise, however, Tom has the ability to style the store to his taste and sell products he’s proud of.

The health consciousness of Great Harvest and its attention to real foods also influenced Tom and Erin to buy the franchise. According to their website,, Tom and Erin “decided that we should share the Great Harvest experience with Pittsburgh, an awesome city with a growing food scene and a focus on fresh, locally made food.” While living in Manchester, CT, they bought bread from Great Harvest and when they learned that it was a franchise, they thought, “Why not? Let’s buy a franchise,” says Tom.

“From start to finish, it’s about a five-hour process,” says Tom about making the bread. “We start around a quarter to five in the morning and the bread doesn’t really hit the table or out to the shelves until 10, 10:30.” The long process to ensure the quality of the bread doesn’t stop at the end of the day:

“We donate all our product that we have left over to a variety of different charities, church groups and so forth,” says Tom. “We find that giving back to the community helps a lot.”

East Liberty’s community is a varied one. According to Tom, his customers are a mix of health conscious people and those who are just hungry and curious. “We get a wide variety of customers,” Tom says.

“We’re hoping that we do attract a lot of people who do want to eat healthy because that’s what our focus is on, a good healthy all-natural food.”

For example, when a middle-aged woman walks into the store with a puzzled look on her face, she walks away with a greater knowledge about bread and a tasty sample.

“Can I help you with anything?” asks the worker behind the cash register.

“I’m just looking, for now,” mumbles the woman as she eyes the menu and display shelves.

The worker offers her a free sample and after going through the list of different breads, the woman selects the Dakota — a honey whole-wheat dough mixed with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. The woman leaves the shop, munching on the bread slice and carrying a menu in her hand.

Tom hopes to reach more of these people by meeting with the East Liberty co-op where he will do a couple of slicing events. Another marketing move Tom made was dropping a basket of bread samples off at the Belmont Market where Tom hopes to someday sell bread at.

K3AW0112“I actually enjoy the whole process of running my own business and making a product that I’m proud to serve to people. I really enjoy that, I think it’s fun,” Tom says. His products are what give the Great Harvest Bread Company in East Liberty its appeal and character. If the store could be personified, it’d be a combination of that super health nut friend you had in college that always pushed you to exercise more and eat right and your grandmother whose recipes and meals made your mouth water just thinking about them. It’s a place any person, regardless of age or gender, can go to get a reasonably priced and wholesome meal.

And if you’re wondering, I played it safe and got the peanut butter-and-jelly on white bread and it put my mother’s to shame. It’s hard to reinvent something already perfect like the PB&J, but Great Harvest Bread Company did it. The bread was dense and flavorful and I will be back to try more of their healthy, whole foods. – Kelsie