The Final Proof: Aug.Sept 2010
By Stephanie Ortenzi
By Stephanie Ortenzi
George Haddad celebrated a significant milestone in June: 30 years in
the pita bread business, a span of time that saw an ethnic specialty go
George Haddad celebrated a significant milestone in June: 30 years in the pita bread business, a span of time that saw an ethnic specialty go mainstream.
Haddad is the founder of Handi Foods, whose Mr. Pita and Pita Gourmet brands are ubiquitous – and often unidentified, as the company does a brisk trade in private-label products and is a key supplier in the quick-service pita restaurant wave.
Haddad was born in Lebanon and came to North America in the mid-1950s, first to Indiana, then to Chicago, and then to Hamilton, Ont., where he was in the fresh-juice delivery business.
In 1980, he spotted a bakery that was struggling to get by. He took it over, kept the employees and starting making pita bread. During the previous decade, a wave of immigration from the Middle East created a significant demand. A staple like bread is a cultural touchstone, a daily necessity and a beloved thing consumed in great quantity, which made the move a smart one for Haddad. By the 1990s, the U.S. wholesale pita bread market was doing $80 million in sales.
Once he was up and running, Haddad went to Canada Bread to see if he could boost his distribution, and there he met Jerry Chizick. They stayed in touch over the years, even when Chizick left the bread business for a few years.
About two years ago, nearly a quarter century after they first met, Chizick went to work at Handi as vice-president and general manager. And not for naught. Since that time, the company has doubled sales and increased production capacity sixfold.
What fascinates me most about the pita story in general is how a culturally specific food goes mainstream. Chizick likens it to the croissant and the bagel. Once a food hits the quick-serve restaurant sector, it’s fully embedded in the culture.
Twenty years ago, when there were falafel, gyros, souvlaki, there would be pita. But today, when there’s health-conscious take-out, pita-centric business is growing, well, healthfully.
Extreme Pita is a hugely successful and still-growing national chain that’s doing very well in the United States. Pita Pit has almost 300 locations, to which Handi supplies bread exclusively. On the retail side, Handi supplies to Loblaws, Metro and Longos. In the case of Costco and Wal-Mart, Handi has cooked up deals above and below the 49th parallel.
But the curious thing about pita’s immersion in the mainstream is the offshoot potential. Haddad says that the door opened for him when salty, fried snack foods were banned from high schools. Handi went into the snack business – double-baked and low fat – which now constitutes 50 per cent of his business. The snack line, which introduces a new pita lexicon, includes Pita Chips, Oh’s, Pita Puffs and Bits. Handi markets pita rusks and crackers, too “Primitive” is the descriptor Haddad uses for early pita production in North America, which would explain his heavy investment in mechanization. Once the production lines were established and functioning efficiently, he and his team saw to it that variety would be the other value to deliver with their brand.
Pita requires a specific baking technique, ovens at 800 to 1,000 F. They’re cooked for less than 20 seconds, and the pocket is a result of the dough’s water content vapourizing at the centre, leaving the identifying cavern begging to be filled.
In Handi’s case, although it began with a Middle Eastern focus, its breads today are cross-cultural, covering Latino, South Asian and Italian tastes with tortillas, rotis and focaccia. The Italian spin-offs include Bruschetta Rounds, Focaccia Bread Crisps and Ciabatta Sticks. An entire line is devoted to pizza.
Back in the pita category, there are Pita Bagels. Chizick says to watch for a 100-calorie bagel scheduled for release in September.
And back in the Middle Eastern category, Handi makes soft lavash, a Persian-style flatbread, and something called Taboon Bread, a.k.a. Laffa, an Arabic bread we’re going to hear a lot more about – but not until Chizick brings the Piadini to light.
Piadini is a pet project about to launch, a bread of Etruscan origin from 1200 B.C.E., a soft, unleavened flatbread cooked on hot stones or tiles and popular throughout the Romagna region of Italy.
In the past 25 years, Chizick says, the pita market has grown 10 to 15 per cent a year. Pita, he adds, is one and a half per cent of the total bread market, “which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is,” Chizick concludes.
The company is now aggressively promoting new business, including three items scheduled to appear in Wal-Mart in the United States, which Chizick characterizes as “explosive in terms of numbers.”
Oh, and Handi makes buns and rolls, too.