John Paterakis a true builder

by Morton Sosland
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Morton Sosland
Although the baking operations and local real estate projects launched and guided over the years by John Paterakis are private family-owned enterprises, almost everyone in baking and nearly everyone who lives in Baltimore know of him and his amazingly successful career on learning of his death at the age of 87. From the viewpoint of baking alone, where operations he built almost from scratch are widely admired by even his fiercest competitors, he is regarded as among the, if not the, most successful builder in the past 70 years. That he often referred to himself as “the little Greek baker” speaks powerfully to his refusing to claim success beyond what has occurred as the result of good fortune combined with hard work. This is the attitude of a man universally respected for what he accomplished in a life dedicated not just to financial success but also to standing tall on behalf of his business, in baking, and the prosperity of the city where he was born and lived.

Mr. Paterakis did have the advantage of growing up in a bakery and in the midst of a retail business started by his father, known as Steve Paterakis, and his brother-in-law, Harry Tsakalos. They had migrated to the United States from Greece, turning to baking as the way they knew to make a living. It is Harry and Steve who account for the H&S Bakery name that continues to this day. John Paterakis worked in the business during his youth, gaining firsthand knowledge of dough and becoming a full-time employee on finishing high school.

The business was still mainly retail when John Paterakis took control following his father’s death in 1953. He pursued growth by expanding reach of the original plant by acquiring space where he installed baking equipment. He quickly saw the limits of being a retailer and changed the company’s focus to wholesale baking, prompting the negotiation of supply arrangements with several newly-established grocery chains. Here he pioneered in arranging exclusive bread supply agreements with a group of sandwich retailers.

It was from that effort that Mr. Paterakis cultivated his handshake relationship with McDonald’s, making him the sole eastern supplier of hamburger buns to the chain. McDonald’s was just getting started and eventually became the largest fast-food operator in the world. His bun business experienced parallel record growth, prompting him to put that business into a newly-named Northeast Foods. By the early 1970s, the company was operating multiple large bun plants that continued to grow in order to supply the chain with an expanding menu of baked foods. The business now encompasses more than twenty baking plants.

Coincident with building the largest privately-owned baking business in America, Mr. Paterakis started extending his family interest to real estate. For his fellow citizens in Baltimore, he emerged as a risk taker willing to invest in a rundown neighborhood like the old harbor area. He was invited by Baltimore’s mayor of some years ago to help develop an area that had been abandoned by another entrepreneur in bankruptcy. Out of that undertaking evolved H&S Properties Development Corp., which continues active in the Baltimore area known as Harbor East. Including the area now called Baltimore’s Gold Coast, the property has two large hotels operated by Marriott and Four Seasons, new office buildings and apartment and condominium development. Just started is a $170 million project that will be anchored by a Whole Foods grocery.

Local obituaries underscore how active Mr. Paterakis was in Baltimore and Maryland state politics. It is important to note that Mr. Paterakis also was honored by being named to the American Society of Baking’s Hall of Fame as well as similar recognition given him in Baltimore. In receiving such honors, he typically said “thank you” and nothing more. Now needed is suitable appreciation for this man who set a standard for business acumen, industry leadership and civic responsibility like we have hardly ever seen.
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