Graduating from the Commonwealth Honors College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree with individual concentration (BDIC) in globalization and entrepreneurship, Pete Merzbacher’s career path brought him down a road he didn’t quite expect.
Merzbacher now owns and runs Philly Bread, a Philadelphia-based wholesale artisan bakery that he started in April 2013. Initially delivering his bread on a bicycle, Pete has since scaled his business into a 5,000-square-foot bakery that provides products to twenty-six local grocers, including Whole Foods Market, and over one hundred restaurants and cafes.
“I definitely set out to create something bigger than an artisan corner bakery,” Merzbacher said. “I really wanted to create bread that people wanted and scale that bread as much as possible.”
Merzbacher isn’t just dedicated to providing high-quality artisan bread. Through his ever-growing bakery, he aims to stimulate the regional economy by purchasing locally grown grains, tying together agriculture and urban development. Philly Bread’s hard work have earned the company a spot on Forbes Magazine and Initiative for a Competitive Inner City “100 Fastest Growing Inner-City Businesses” list.
“I try to leverage what little power I have as a small business owner,” Merzbacher said. “Buying locally, hiring locally, paying people what they deserve, affecting policy, trying to provide good bread for a community that wouldn’t normally have access to this bread."
Merzbacher’s motivation to start a bakery would not have been the same without his time at UMass and the Honors College.
“Executing ideas was definitely on my radar, so I wasn’t sure if I would execute ideas as a teacher, nonprofit administrator, professor, or small business owner,” Merzbacher said. “But I knew I didn’t want to be purely in the idea sphere or in the execution sphere. I knew I wanted to be coming up with ideas and then doing them, which is kind of what BDIC is.”
Much like founding his bakery, Merzbacher had the idea of what he wanted to study at college and knew it was up to him to pursue it. His choice to study globalization was driven by his desire to understand the change happening around the world. He added the entrepreneurship aspect to his major when realizing he wanted to do something to improve the lives of others rather than be a bystander.
“[I wondered] what I could do here and now to improve my life and the lives of others,” Merzbacher said. “To do things to try to restore some of the ecology that we’ve destroyed...I wanted to be at the front lines and steering the ship in whatever small way I can.”
Merzbacher credits two Commonwealth Honors faculty members for influencing his business decisions: Peter Bloom and Peter DiGiammarino. Bloom, a UMass Amherst 1978 alumni and Harvard Business School graduate, serves as the Commonwealth Honors advisory board chair. Among his many business ventures, Bloom formerly served as the CEO of Costanzo’s Bakery, a commercial bakery based in Buffalo, New York. DiGiammarino also serves on the advisory board. The 1975 UMass alumni earned his MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in spring 2012, lecturing on leadership and building-sustained organizational growth. Together, the two Peters naturally served as mentors to Merzbacher.
While he had a short loss of contact with Peter D. after graduating, some early struggles for Merzbacher’s business saw him reach out to DiGiammarino, who introduced him to Bloom in 2016. The duo joined to help Merzbacher's business stay on track. He took one of DiGiammarino’s classes while at UMass, which cultivated his leadership skills. Bloom’s experience in the bakery business gave Merzbacher an industry mentor who could give him a standard on which to scale his business
“They really helped me go through it,” Merzbacher said. “They’ve always been honest with me. They don’t tell me what I want to hear, they tell me what I need to hear...I needed someone to help me through the difficult business problems, and Peter B and Peter D were always there to help.”
Other experiences that led Merzbacher in his decision to start Philly Bread was his creation of “New Growth Gardens,” an urban farming initiative in Springfield, Mass., that he started during his time at UMass, with help from a grant from the Honors College. His honors thesis focused on measuring the effectiveness of urban farming and development, aiming to understand whether food creation, education, or other factors are most important when considering urban farms.
“There are so many farms throughout Western Massachusetts that can actually grow a lot of food for people,” said Merzbacher of what he learned throughout these projects. “But a community garden is great, people might not see each other or might not have a reason to trust each other, or want to feel connected to their roots...It was the first thing I got to run by myself and have a team that I was responsible for. It was like a warm up to Philly Bread.”
Merzbacher had his first good bread at the Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton, Mass., making him want to bake his own bread. He first attempted to bake bread in 2012, accidentally finding success after frying up some pieces of sourdough, creating what would later be called the “Philly Muffin”—the flagship product of Philly Bread.
His curiosity of the world, his time at Commonwealth Honors College and the connections he made, and a desire to make a meaningful impact has driven Merzbacher into becoming a successful business owner.
“At UMass, there was never a shortage of resources available to me,” Merzbacher said. “But no one was giving me the exact course to follow to accomplish my learning objectives. The idea of defining your objectives and working backwards from there, whether it’s a learning objective or a financial objective, I definitely developed at UMass. I’ll forever be super loyal to everything UMass. I love that place.”