Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief
Holding what it says is more than a 40% share of the gyros market, Grecian Delight Foods (GDF), Elk Grove Village, Ill., is always looking to innovate in the rapidly expanding category of Greek and Mediterranean ethnic food manufacturing and distribution. Expanding beyond its roots, the company today produces whole wheat pita chips, various sizes of pita flatbread (including New York and Chicago Styles), wheat pocket breads, perforated pitas, pita folds, white pita pockets, Mediterranean pita chips, artisan focaccia, lavash, multigrain pita squares, artisan-style naan flatwraps,Skinny Buns(flat sandwich buns), custom flatbreads, pizza shells, customized/hybrid products and more.
It also sells flatbreads (one line has 16 stock-keeping units [SKUs], that go by the company’sOne Republicbrand name for retail and foodservice items) as well as pita breads, dips, spreads, pizza shells, gyros meal kits and sandwiches to supermarket delis and a number of retail items under theOpaa!brand. The products are sold nationwide and abroad and shipped by common carrier through some 400 ethnic and broadline foodservice distributors to restaurants and national chains. As of 2009, it’s reported that GDF accrued more than $1 billion in sales over its existence. “And we still remain one of the leading gyros manufacturer and brand nationally,” says Peter Parthenis, Jr., president and CEO.
Consumer demand for ethnic foods is on the rise, so the company is capitalizing on this need, with more new quick and easy to prepare flatbreads that can be used to complement its line of dips, as a base for pizzas and bruschettas and as an accompaniment to salads and entrees or as a portable sandwich device.
Paving the way for more growth
Today, Parthenis, Jr. says the company has been on a smooth road to steady growth, thanks to his father, who built everything from the ground up. Born and raised in Greece, Peter Parthenis, Sr. immigrated to Chicago in the early 1960s, determined to succeed. Studying to be an automation engineer, he soon developed a vertical broiler for cooking gyro meat called the Autodonor, which has become a Greek food industry staple.
He then decided to start his own company and established a small gyro meat distribution business, GDF, and produced and sold gyros meat, baklava and tzatziki sauce. But in every subsequent decade, the company added significant capacity and expanded into new product categories and distribution channels.
After 30 years at the helm of the company, Parthenis, Sr., currently chairman of the board, handed the GDF business over to his son in 2007. This could be a tall order for anyone at first, but Parthenis, Jr. dove in head-first, as he spent more than 15 years learning every aspect of the business before taking over. He worked on the production floor, in sales and marketing, in finance and as a regional manager.
As the responsibility of the company became his, Parthenis, Jr. began to take on new business ventures in the foodservice sector. He had great plans to pave the way for growth, including doubling the size of the company and making it a best-in-class provider to the Mediterranean food segment through continued innovation, quality ingredients and an eye on customer needs.
Indeed, the company faces many challenges in this difficult economy, Parthenis, Jr. says. “Things such as market volatility on key commodity ingredients. In the past three years, the industry has experienced historical highs in the cost of flour/wheat, dairy, lamb and meat. We have to manage profits, gross margins and return on investment (ROI) at acceptable levels for shareholders during this market volatility.”
But GDF is weathering the economic storm and surging ahead with new projects and lots of high-energy enthusiasm, whether it’s rolling out gyros to non-commercial and non-traditional foodservice operators, developing new flatbread products, or working with customers to create new and unique merchandising programs, GDF provides a vast choice of products.
The company provides 450 SKUs overall, including private-label; “Roughly one-third of these SKUs are bakery,” Parthenis, Jr. explains.
Employing more than 250 people, the company also has a highly trained direct sales force and occupies 200,000 sq. ft. in its original location. Highly involved in community efforts, GDF received the 2010 Illinois Family Business of the Year Community Service Award from Loyola University, Chicago.
“This reinforces our core value standards,” says Parthenis, Jr. “We continuously work toward our vision statement: ‘When the food industry, as a whole, thinks of and desires Greek and other Mediterranean food products, Grecian Delight is the preferred company of choice. Our core values include: Pursue profitable growth; act with integrity; drive for results; have a passion for excellence; have respect for people; and demonstrate accountability.”
Today, Parthenis, Jr. and the GDF team see several key trends driving bakery sales. “We’re noticing the demand for healthier alternative products (better-for-you)-things that are lower in calories and fat, products with no preservatives and smaller portion sizes. We’re working on lower sodium breads right now,” he points out. “Currently, we are conducting a company-wide examination of sodium in all of our product categories and are testing products that have a sodium reduction in a range of 10-40%. We are focused on providing better options for all segments.”
Last year, GDF launched its popular Skinny Buns line, which is a group of thin sandwich rounds made with whole grain that has only 90 calories for one serving. “They are also reduced-sodium, have no trans-fats and are made with whole wheat,” explains Parthenis, Jr. “We have also entered new product categories with Indian flatbread, naan [the naan comes in classic and multigrain varieties], Middle Eastern flatbread, Lavash and traditional hand-stretched-style pizza crusts and flatbreads.”
The top seller is still the company’s traditional pita bread, he says. “There hasn’t been a big shift there. We’ve seen consistent growth in our bakery products,” he adds.
Amy Fattori, director of marketing, points out more features. “We’re offering new flavors such as Maple, Italian Herb, and many more and are also focused in multigrain breads. We also introduced a new grill-marked flatbread for restaurant operators, which has that just-grilled look that many of them have been asking for.” The grill-marked flatbreads were launched in July and the Lavash flatbreads debuted in new sizes, from minis to 4x18 in., in May.
“We also have noticed the demand for private-label [products] has increased significantly and the quality of private-label products has also increased,” Parthenis, Jr. says. “The quality is today considered equal to national brands by consumers.”
Second production facility
The company is constantly evolving and has really changed a lot in the past five years, Parthenis, Jr. observes. Striving to convey the right image to customers is very important, he points out. “The overall image Grecian Delight conveys is quality, food safety, consistency, being a trusted brand and being a trusted company. We’re dedicated to expanding the company’s products and to providing value to our customers.”
GDF added a second production location, also in Elk Grove Village, which opened in November 2010. The facility has 130,000 sq. ft. of space, which was renovated extensively to increase GDF’s flatbread production, including a new high-speed bakery production line, which has in-line freezing and packaging capabilities, and as well as a separate distribution company.
“We drastically increased our capacity and product offerings and increased our manufacturing footprint [with the new plant] to accommodate our aggressive strategic growth plans,” Parthenis, Jr. adds. “In January 2010, we made an investment to purchase and remodel a second, first-class, manufacturing facility, which is used predominately for bakery and other Mediterranean products.”
This is where GDF now produces pizza crusts, the new Skinny Buns sandwich rounds, pitas, pita pockets, naan and other flatbreads, Fattori notes. “The vast majority (as much as 90%) of the products are shipped and sold frozen to foodservice customers-the traditional ethnic fast-food operators as well as a variety of restaurants, retailers, the Chicago Public School System and hospitals. The other 10% makes up our growing retail business,” she says.
Another key improvement that the company made recently was to start tracking machine reliability, and if downtime becomes a reoccurring problem, it conducts lifecycle analysis studies, followed by equipment strategy sessions carried out by production personnel to see if machinery should be repaired, rebuilt or replaced. Among other new features, the second production site houses a large, fully equipped maintenance room as well as a testing lab, ample warehouse storage space and plenty of space for another production line or two.
Food safety, other initiatives
In April, the family-owned company also completed Level 2 out of 3 SQF (Safe Quality Food) certification. Level 2 is a certified Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan benchmarked by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) program, whereas Level 3 is even more comprehensive and incorporates Level 2. “SQF is the new standard for retailers and foodservice providers internationally, and Grecian Delight Foods is excited to be among the first in the foodservice industry to anticipate this critical and credible qualification for food safety,” says Fattori.
The bakery is also certified by the California Certified Organic Farm (CCOF), Santa Cruz, Calif., to run certified organic breads. “The company continues to invest in quality in an effort to stay true to its brand commitment of delivering the highest quality, and food safety is the No.1 priority,” states Parthenis, Jr. “With our achievement of SQF Level 2 certification, we will continue to proceed to Level 3 in the near future.”
If that’s not enough, GDF also completed an energy conservation project in 2009 for its lighting system through BlueStar Energy, Chicago, which made its lighting 80% more efficient than “standard building models,” and included a 5% electricity reduction. Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on an annual basis, BlueStar was able to help Grecian Delight reduce 442,331 kilowatt hours of energy and 308 tons of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide pollution. This is equivalent to 86 cars off the road for one year or 7,899 trees planted and absorbing pollution for 10 years.
More exciting news at the company will be taking place next year, Parthenis, Jr. hints. The company continues to juggle all of its customer demands, high-speed production, new product development, environmentalism and charitable endeavors with a strong sense of family heritage and a commitment to quality.
“I’m most proud of our ability to invest and expand our products and value to our customers in a difficult economic time,” he adds. “I’m proud of our long-term commitment to be a leader in our space of specialty ethnic and Mediterranean foods.”
How does GDF and Parthenis, Jr. do it? “What keeps me going is that I truly enjoy the challenges and stress that comes along with all of this,” says Parthenis, Jr. “When it comes to taking over a family business, growth drives me. Strategy drives me and building a team and expanding our products to deliver long-term sustainability for Grecian Delight Foods, Inc. drives me. Where will we see the company in five years? Continuing our course of expanding our presence in different segments through new products and customers and through growth by acquisition.”