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How the Muffin Man and the Akron Marathon Came to Be

Muffin Man chronicles.jpg
Akron Marathon
Steve Marks credits his wife, Jeannine (pictured), for supporting him over the past three decades as he and lifelong friend and business partner Harvey Nelson built up Main Street Gourmet in Akron. Marks channeled that success into establishing the Akron Marathon in 2003.

The 19th annual Akron Marathon steps off on Saturday morning. And a new book shows how the marathon’s founder grew his business -- one muffin at a time.

For more than three decades, Steve Marks kept a journal as he and his business partner, Harvey Nelson, built Main Street Gourmet from a storefront near Lock 3 to a major wholesaler. Now, he’s taken his real-time diary of entrepreneurial success and turned it into a book, “The Muffin Man Chronicles.”

“It's usually not one straight trajectory up. A lot of times, it’s three steps back and two steps forward.”

Marks calls his success a rewarding mix of hard work, problem-solving, passion, skills, and luck.

“Well, I guess the backdrop to all that is that I had a great support system. I [didn’t] have a wife that was constantly nagging me or upset with how much I was working or the direction I was going. You can imagine how tough that would be; she was always in my corner [and] understood what it took to get the business off the ground, understood what it took to succeed. A lot of late nights working at home and so forth. So I couldn't ask for a better partner in that regard to be able to get through all the ups and downs.

'Off the rails'
“Harvey was my closest friend who I've known ever since I can remember. The beauty of having a partner in a business is that you have someone to lean on and someone to bounce things off of all the time. In the early stages, we were never both out-of-town at the same time. It was like a clone of me.

“When one guy was low, the other guy would pick him up. It was always a constant pushing each other in the right direction. When I was off the rails doing something stupid, he would help me -- and I did the same for him.”

Marks says his book offers not only a look into his company’s success, but also advice for people who aren’t sure which career to pursue.

“I tried to put somebody in my shoes and see the things I saw. There's the person in college that is contemplating a career. Should they go into industry? Should they go into their own business? I went with an accounting firm out of college -- what was probably the best thing I could have done. It got me experience [and] I learned so many things about that firm. And then it laid the groundwork for me to get into business. But I just could never be in that typical kind of job. Maybe it's a personality defect, but I just couldn't do that. So that's sort of why I became an entrepreneur.”

McDonald's Test - 1989

The golden arches
One of the book’s high points is Main Street Gourmet’s partnership with one of the biggest chains in America.

“I think probably everybody's dream account in the restaurant business is McDonald's. We were a small, fledgling retail store in downtown Akron in 1990 when we got a call from a local franchisee wanting to know if they could come and talk to us. Ultimately, they wanted to test market a fresh-baked muffin concept in their store. Now you can imagine the kind of sentiments and feelings we were having through that process. We were elated. Before we even had a deal, we probably told everybody in the world that we were going to be doing business with McDonald's; we weren't shy about that. It allowed us to learn so many things about McDonald's: their systems and just the way they operate. It was so educational and really promoted our growth.”

'I've always lived in Akron'
With a deal like that, many local businesses might move their headquarters to a larger city. But Marks has always wanted to stay here.

“I've always lived in Akron. I love Akron; it's a great place to live. It's a great place to raise a family. It's a great place to have a business. I mean, if you look at Akron from an economic standpoint, I believe it's within 500 miles of two-thirds of the United States population. The routes to Chicago, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic area, and Saint Louis and all those various places -- it's just a great place to do business. I wouldn't want to move anywhere else. I've always liked it here. And it just it made no sense for us to leave. I couldn't think of a situation that would force me to leave Akron.”

Running a marathon
Marks kept the company in Northeast Ohio, and channeled his success into founding the Akron Marathon in 2003.

“My wife and I had always run in the marathons in different cities and we always wondered why Akron didn't have a marathon. I made the mistake of telling somebody in the government of the City of Akron, ‘now why doesn't Akron have a marathon? All these other cities have it.’ I got pulled into a meeting with the mayor and some city officials and the next thing I know, I walked out of that meeting in charge of a marathon.

“The beauty of it was that my family had started a foundation. The usual concept is just to donate the investment proceeds to various charitable organizations. But it seemed like that's more of a shotgun approach versus the rifle approach of doing something direct. The Akron Marathon became the vehicle to accomplish that. So, we poured all of our resources from that foundation into the Akron Marathon.”

Marks adds that they’re already making preparations for the 20th marathon next year, with special events to be announced soon.

Vintage news stories on Main Street Muffins are available here. The 1992 story below features WKSU's Joyce Johnson, who was then with WAKC-TV23:

TV Story 1992