By Marina Mayer
Sam Ajmera cannot forget the first time he met Jim White 29 years ago. White, a writer for The Toronto Star, came to his bakery wearing “his goofy hat and his backpack” with the intention of doing a story on the pita bread that Ajmera’s company produced.
“And guess what?” Ajmera asks. “He pulled out our pita bread and had made a sandwich out of it.”
Right there in the middle of the interview, too.
Since then, Ajmera and White have earned their stripes in the food industry playing in the big leagues, but doing it their own way. Ajmera and his brother built and operated Dough Delight, one of Canada’s leading producers of frozen baked goods that, in its heyday, would pump out 5 million bagels per day and 3 million croissants per month. At Loblaw Cos., White coined the term “President’s Choice” for the Canadian grocers’ private label program and turned to Dough Delight when his company needed premium-quality baked goods. He later acted as a consultant working with Ajmera and other companies in developing healthier-for-you products.
Then Ajmera sold his bakery in the early ‘90s only to end up purchasing an Arkansas-based rice business, which he later turned over to his sons upon retirement. White eventually settled down in Napa Valley, Calif. to write about food and wine, two loves of his life, and to make wine.
That was until five years ago when his phone rang.
“Jim,” Ajmera said, “I am so bored, I don’t know what to do.”
Ajmera suggested that they buy a bakery, fix it up and make some new products. And that’s how the “unboring” road to success officially began.
The two friends initially purchased a 5,000-sq.-ft. facility in Toronto that was only raking in $600,000 in sales and producing just six varieties of muffins. However, they wanted to turn out more than just muffins, and certainly more than what the Average Joe was making. They wanted to produce Tandoori Naan and other traditional, authentic flatbreads that have been around for centuries and introduce these ancient products to a broader, commercial market.
According to Ajmera, FGF Brands simply is reinventing products that he ate as a child and is bringing them to new markets for consumers to experience and enjoy.
“You cannot break tradition,” he says. “You’re so used to eating certain things because you grew up with it, why would you try to break it? I want to enhance it. I want to make it easier for you to buy and feel good about it. That’s what we do.”
After moving to a larger facility, the duo renamed the bakery FGF Brands, short for Functional Gourmet Foods, because the products were to be loaded with nutrients, or in other words, be functional.
During the last four years, Ajmera and White have created what has blossomed into a $50 million business with a new 85,000-sq.-ft. plant in Concord, Ont., where it produces more than 250 products, including muffins and flatbreads, the latter under the umbrella brand of International Fabulous Flats.
In addition to Tandoori Naan, which was named one of the best new food products in the United States by Prepared Foods magazine last October, the line now includes stone-baked pizza crusts and an Italian-style foccacia. The products contain no trans fats, preservatives or artificial flavors and can be found in grocery stores and health food chains nationwide in both the United States and Canada.
But when all is said and done, their goal is to be known as the flatbread guys, the Ben & Jerry’s of international all-natural flatbreads.“There are certain brands that have great traction in the marketplace,” White says. “You know, when you buy a Ben & Jerry’s product, it has an ethical background, it has a visibility, it has humor and flair. And they didn’t take shortcuts. We don’t take shortcuts either. Sam and I started this crazy thing because we wanted to, not because we have to. Once your motivation is understood and there are no shortcuts, you come up with products like this.”
Anything but Normal
Ajmera and White think of themselves as “contrarian bakers,” or self-described “foodies” who love a good glass of fine wine with a meal.
“We like to make our own markets rather than follow them,” White says. “We thought the flatbreads would be the perfect category to actually create because mostly, not exclusively, but mostly, where there are tortilla makers or pita bread makers or pizza crust makers, there is not a confluence of other flatbreads in that manufacturing plant.”
Together, they’ve created a family of products but not without the help from the “two smartest tacks in the box,” according to White.
He’s referring to Ajmera’s sons, Ojus and Tejus, who can be thought of as FGF’s secret weapons, full of energy, drive and vision. Ajmera’s oldest son, Ojus Ajmera, controls the sales and marketing aspect of the company while still continuing to manage his father’s previous investment in an Arkansas rice company. The youngest, Tejus Ajmera, is the head of bakery operations, putting into place essential manufacturing practices and running the day-to-day bakery functions.
“They love doing this,” White says. “It’s not like anybody’s got a rocket up their [butt] telling them to do it.”
Each of the sons can easily hold his own in- and outside of the bakery as they mutter off facts and figures on the company, product knowledge, customer relationship tactics and what differentiates FGF Brands from its competitors.
“The thing that’s different about what we want to do and what others do is that other bakers will take the equipment they have and figure out what products to make with it,” Ojus Ajmera says. “We figure out what products we want to make and figure out how to make the equipment for it.”
Take, for example, the world’s only continuous tandoor oven. It took one year, many trials and more than a million dollars to develop, but the bakery finally built and patented the oven that can reach 1,200°F to bake Tandoori Naan in 15 to 45 seconds. In fact, to keep up with demand, the company produces 1 million International Fabulous Flats Tandoori Naan per week, with the Original and Roasted Garlic being the top-selling varieties. The company also makes a whole grain variety at the request of one of its health-driven customers.
To maintain the tradition and authenticity of their products, Tandoori Naan dough is hand-stretched by real people, not machines, and made with all-natural ingredients, such as carrot fiber, liquid whole eggs, fresh soy milk and buttermilk.
Ojus Ajmera says that the company’s vision is to take ethnic flatbreads from around the world and bring them to retailers’ shelves in North America. With the new artisan-style stone-baked pizza crust, for instance, FGF Brands wanted to bring to the market traditional pizza crust that you’d find in Naples, Italy, where such flatbreads are stone-baked, hand-tossed and flavored with sea salt and olive oil.
Nothing else would do.“You’ll see how beautiful and delicate the pizza crust dough is, it’s hand-formed,” Ojus Ajmera says. “It’s made the way it would be made in Italy.”
Looking for Adventure
White likens the company’s search for authentic products to that of Indiana Jones and his exploration for ancient treasures. Both he and the Ajmeras are people who hunt down classic dishes versus turning to commercial recipes as a starting point for research.
“[Consumers] are looking for inventive new products, tasty new products,” White explains. “All of a sudden [we] come up with a bread that has so much versatility. Most breads don’t have that kind of versatility. I mean a dinner roll is a dinner roll, that’s the end of a dinner roll.”
The folks at FGF want to educate their consumers in understanding the quality and authenticity of what they can bring to the table.
Tejus Ajmera notes that there’s an ethnic influence in North America where people are repositioning what were ethnic items and turning them into mainstream foods.
Flatbread isn’t just for curry anymore.
“We want to teach the customer that there’s more to flatbread than a tortilla,” Tejus Ajmera says. “There’s a world of ethnic flatbreads that the consumer needs to be exposed to. We want to figure out how to bring that to the market.”
While White’s goofy hat may act as a thinking cap when it comes to marketing or developing new products, they prefer to push the “family” aspect of their business to get the job done. For instance, White’s daughter, Jenn White Topliff, plays an integral role in the company. An experienced packaging and graphic designer, she is responsible for all of the product packaging.
Each naan and stone-baked pizza crust is cello-wrapped in a clear film. The back of the package lists suggested uses and servings and promises a finished product, such as Sautéed Mushroom and Fontina Panini Naan or Tomato Basil Bruschetta, in 15 minutes or less.
Plus the packages include serving the heated flatbread with tasty recipes, such as Masala-spiced Tomato Salsa, many of which orignate straight from the bakery’s test kitchen. Additional recipes are listed on the company’s newly designed Web site, www.fgfbrands.com.
Health and convenience may be the hot trends, but consumers still long to find the time to make an original meal, and one that doesn’t “eat” into their evening.
“Even though cooking is a pain, minimal preparation is on the uptake,” Ojus Ajmera says. “People want to have that feeling of ‘I made this.’”
Back to the Future
By holding onto the past, FGF Brands is finding itself ahead of the times. In addition to custom-made muffins, the company is now in position to roll out a new flatbread every six to eight months.
“We’ve basically got the next two to three years of R&D done,” Ojus Ajmera says. “We’re just sitting tight until we can roll out one at a time.”
That’s because they’re trying to establish their brand, a category and a home within the supermarket for flatbreads.
According to White, they don’t want to confuse consumers with an overwhelming line of new products all at once. Rather they want their consumers to understand what each product has to offer and appreciate the authenticity of each item.
“Bread is now and can be part of an exciting experience at the table,” he says. “You want the bread that makes the meal. The cap of the meal.”
So is the world round or flat? Who knows? Passion and faith are steering the ship.
“The brand, International Fabulous Flats, is what we’ve all internally come up with,” Ojus Ajmera says. “It’s natural, authentic, unboring. It’s natural because it refers to the type of ingredients that we use. It’s authentic because my father has always been a proponent in making sure that you got to come from tradition.”
“That is the contemporary twist that we add to something,” he says. “Something that makes it interesting, whether it’s the packaging, the process, the ingredients or the flavors so the whole thing comes together.”
White and Sam Ajmera have come together to make a load of products that are clean labeled and clean tasting. In the meantime, their customers will see them finish each other’s sentences and exchange comical slapstick. Their friendship is infectious and balanced. As Sam Ajmera says, “If I’m going to be in business, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Now, that’s anything-but-a-dull approach to a hard day’s work.