Grecian Delight Foods, Inc.

by Maria Pilar Paulick
You might not know Grecian Delight Foods, Inc., but many foodservice operators do. Now the maker of pita bread, pita chips and Greek food under the Opaa! brand in the retail channel caters to Greek and mainstream consumers alike.
Throughout time, Greece has been making history. Home to the 2004 Olympic games, the Mediterranean country boasts an unmatched legacy of drama, democracy, chaos, and tragedy ensnaring the senses with its ancient heritage.
However, not everything has to become a Homeric study of the ancient world — the Greek penchant for partying dates back to Dionysus. Greeks might be fierce protectors of tradition, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to relax, have fun and indulge in some of the best food this side of the Aegean.
Socrates said: “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat,” but explorers of food can hardly help it when faced with classic Greek fare such as pita bread, pita chips, tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt dip), souvlaki (grilled meat in a pita) or spanakopita (spinach and cheese turnover) all washed down with licorice-flavored ouzo.
The Mediterranean Food Pyramid
These days, people are focused on dieting, weight loss and improved health. From the Atkins revolution to the South Beach diet, consumers are searching for the right combination of foods to help them maintain a healthy lifestyle. The ultimate answer might lie simply in a Mediterranean diet.
“Think of it as the Mediterranean Food Pyramid,” James Gaspar, president and CEO of Grecian Delight Foods, Inc., says.
Overshadowed by today’s trendy and fad diets, the Mediterranean diet is much like the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid, which is currently under fire by a host of diet-conscious critics. However, the Mediterranean diet places more emphasis on a balance of whole grains, meats and fish eaten sparingly, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables and a popular Greek staple — olive oil.
One of the mainstays of the Greek diet is the hearty horiatiki salata (country salad), consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese and olives. As more and more chain restaurants jump on the salad bandwagon, Mediterranean food is becoming the prominent player on everyone’s lists.
“Research out of medical schools and other groups has shown the potential ability of the Mediterranean diet to decrease the risk of heart disease and certain cancers,” Gasper notes.
The Food Guide Pyramid is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines and research as to what kinds of foods Americans eat, the various nutrients that are found in those foods and how to make informed food-consumption decisions based on the USDA’s findings.
So, as the USDA looks to revise its dietary guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid, Gaspar suggests that perhaps facets of the Mediterranean eating style will be replicated and adopted in the final analysis, giving manufacturers of Mediterranean food an even brighter future.
Tucked away in an industrial park in Elk Grove Village, Ill., Grecian Delight Foods, Inc. operates a bustling 200,000-sq.-ft. facility dedicated to the manufacture and marketing of authentic Greek and Mediterranean ethnic food. Over time, it has become a specialist in Greek food, producing fresh pita bread, gyros meat (cones and slices), sauces, appetizers, entrees and desserts for foodservice and retail channels.
The company’s mission is twofold: to remain the preferred supplier of Greek food to its customers and to broaden its reach among mainstream consumers. Having been in the business for more than 30 years, it must be doing something right.
Today, Grecian is a privately held family-owned company in its third location and still growing. The company has grown from a one-man operation to a work force of more than 190 people. (See accompanying story, page 28).
For years, foodservice operators ranging from Greek restaurants and fast-food chains to casual-dining restaurants have recognized the Grecian Delight name, but the company now is venturing into the retail channel under the Opaa! brand.
Originally, Grecian marketed its Grecian Delight brand to the retail channel with a handful of sandwich kits — none of which created a cohesive brand image in the consumer’s mind. Because it’s hard to maintain a brand identity, the company searched for a new name and a new look that would differentiate the brand and enable it to rise above the confusion that had previously hindered the Greek food category from gaining more recognition.
Under the Opaa! brand, Grecian focuses on major-metro markets, especially those areas where consumers are already somewhat familiar with Greek cuisine.
“In these markets, Greek food is authentic and well done. Not a great deal of education is needed,” says James Gaspar, president and CEO. “The great news with our products is that the bread and the sauce and the meat that we use in our retail products are exactly the same meats, breads and sauces that we sell to our foodservice operators. So there’s no sacrifice. There’s no shortcut. It’s the real deal. It’s the authentic product. The only thing we’re asking our consumer to do is to heat and prepare and put the sandwich together.”
The company is focused on its commitment to authenticity.
“It’s not the American view of what Greek food is,” Gaspar explains. “It is a Greek view. In fact, we’re so committed to that position that we sent out one of our research chefs to Greece to work with Greek food manufacturers and Greek chefs to better understand Greek cuisine. So we have a passion for delivering authentic flavors, not a watered-down version.”
From Food Processor to Baker
Grecian is a classic example of a food manufacturer expanding into a bakery, with departments dedicated to the elaboration and production of meats, sauces, entrees, appetizers, and of course, pita bread. Grecian counts on three bakery lines to produce its flatbread in varying sizes — from 3-in. rounds to 9-in. rounds, squares and even rectangles.
The bakery department is one of three key components for the entire line of products and the basis for Grecian’s foundation. Producing pita bread is a good hook for the company to launch and balance the line while at the same time producing a baked product that consumers easily identify with.
Grecian has put forth Herculean efforts in the redesign of its products, specifically expanding its line of kit components. Additionally, the bakery offerings were redesigned and expanded to offer a better variety of wraps, pitas and pocket pitas under the Opaa! brand.
Because the kits are the basis for Grecian’s retail efforts, a lot of time and effort has been put into making the brand appealing to consumers.
For example, a new Mediterranean chicken gyros variety has been added, enhanced with optimum flavor from its fresh-tasting sauces.
“The Opaa! brand was created internally,” Gaspar says. “We wanted something fun that spoke to excitement and which the majority of consumers who have been exposed to Greek cuisine understand immediately. Opaa! is fun and distinctly Greek.”
It definitely is that. The product’s bright blue packaging depicts a typical Mediterranean scene with white buildings contrasted sharply against a background of glittering ocean waters. A window on the front of the packaging gives consumers a glimpse of the product inside, and below the window, a mouth-watering image of the assembled and ready-to-eat product gets the taste buds ready for an ethnic culinary adventure.
The brand’s exclamation-pointed brand name instills a reminiscent feeling of the glee you experience when dining at a Greek restaurant — at the exact moment your waiter brandishes a match to your order of saganaki (feta cheese a flambé) and triumphantly yells, “Opa!”
Raising Brand Awareness
A year ago, Grecian introduced its Opaa! brand to create a new destination brand at the retail level for the Mediterranean food market. The line includes sandwich (gyros) kits, pita bread, sauces, pita chips (in Tuscan and Zesty Cucumber varieties), Feisty Feta Spread (crumbled feta cheese mixed with four to five different peppers and tomato sauce), flavored hummus, bruschetta and tapenades (premium dipping sauces).
Mediterranean food is on the brink of becoming more and more mainstream in American culture, and Opaa! is the first destination brand playing to that idea and growing along with it.
“When you talk about the diversity of the American public, it just speaks to the fact that we’re going to have more [food] options because there are going to be more ethnicities and cuisines represented,” Gaspar says.
The line is hitting home with retailers, who place the products in the refrigerated gourmet shelf in the in-store bakery/deli area.
“Traditional Mediterranean was a confusing blend of imported brands and single product brands merchandised throughout the retail store,” Gaspar notes.
As an addition to its Opaa! line, the company also rolled out its pita chips. Introduced initially as a new product in 2003 at the foodservice level, restaurant operators were asked to fry a 3-in. pita cut into a half-moon shape.
The new product was met with a positive response not only from customers, but also from the operators themselves. This innovation came at a time when restauranteurs were looking to make a change from the rather flimsy tortilla chip to a sturdier pita chip. Although Grecian knew it would have to get a foothold on this at the retail level, the challenge was the development of a product with the features and attributes of a chip — such as crispiness — as well as flavoring systems and packaging.
Working with a co-packer that bakes the sliced pitas and a spice supplier to develop optimum flavor, Grecian found success in developing its new snack product. The packaging consists of a gusseted metallic pouch with a resealable zipper to attract those consumers looking for value-added packaging.
The pita chip pouches share the same bright blue coloring and Mediterranean scene as the sandwich kits. Consistency in the line is an important factor for its ultimate success.
Because placing the pita chips into the highly competitive traditional snack food aisle would not have yielded strong potential for growth, Grecian decided to place its products in the service deli area where high-end sauces, spreads and premium breads are found.
Bread and Butter
Grecian has worked a lot on the redesign and repackaging of its products, specifically on expanding its line of kit components. Additionally, Grecian’s bread line was redesigned and expanded to offer a better variety of wraps, pitas and pocket pitas available under the Opaa! brand. These redesigns have Grecian believing it is positioned nicely for the time in the near future when Americans “discover” Mediterranean food.
According to Gaspar, three ethnic cuisines currently dominate the market: Asian, Southwest/Mexican and Italian. In his opinion, these three areas have reached the point of saturation with both the market and the consumers.
“As Americans travel more and the complexion of America becomes more and more diverse, we’re seeing the American consumer become more experimental — more interested in other cuisines outside of what we’ve seen as becoming almost Americanized from those other ethnic dishes,” Gaspar notes. He goes on to say that Mediterranean food is on its way to joining the ranks of these preferred cuisines in the near future. “We believe the reason that it hasn’t gotten there to date is because there has not been a single destination brand available. Opaa! is the first comprehensive Mediterranean brand,” Gaspar says. “There has been a high level of interest from customers; we are steadily growing the brand at both the giant retailers [and] the smaller boutique retailers who are looking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.”
To address the changing tastes of the consumer, Grecian has turned its sights to mainstreaming other Mediterranean products.
“What we’ve learned since rolling out the Opaa! brand is that there’s a high degree of interest at the retail level in this cuisine,” Gaspar says. “But the retailer is unsure as to which items and which categories to lead with because of the cutting-edge nature of moving into a full line of Mediterranean products. Until recently, most stores offered only olives, olive oil and feta cheese. That was the sum total of their Mediterranean offerings.”
Newness in this category means that consumers often are left shrugging their shoulders and muttering, “it’s all Greek to me,” when faced with new food choices. Whether it’s a gyros sandwich or a Moussaka or Pastichio entrée, Greek cuisine might be somewhat intimidating and unfamiliar territory for many people. Grecian has an answer to that concern.
“We’re expanding into offering fully cooked, heat-and-eat entrees,” Gaspar says. “Moussaka is now more recognizable as eggplant Parmesan lasagna, and Pastichio becomes a Mediterranean lasagna product. So what we’re trying to do is mainstream and expose people to Greek food.”
Grecian is experiencing crossover into Anglo markets with its products.
“If you take a look at the traditional gyros market, or, for example, if you go down to Greektown in Chicago,” Gaspar says, “what you will see is a cuisine that appeals not only to Greeks. Greek food is becoming more and more popular. What you will see is more and more of a younger demographic of 18-35 [years old]. In fact, from our foodservice experience we see that Greek food is extremely popular on college campuses.”
People are being exposed at an earlier age to Greek and Mediterranean foods, but Grecian is leading the way in re-introducing this ethnic cuisine.
Greek food is out there, but now it’s time to get consumers and retailers more in-the-know about the options and applications that Mediterranean food has to offer. Take a closer look at trend-setting items in the marketplace today. Pitas are out there everywhere, and can be fine-tuned as a base or addition for many dishes.
Additionally, the Culinary Institute of America typically conducts a seminar focusing on a particular cuisine or portion of a particular ethnic menu. In 2003, this highly respected seminar concentrated on Greek and Mediterranean food exclusively and was one of the most popular seminars that the institute has conducted to date.
“That speaks to the high level of interest in the foodservice circle in Greek and Mediterranean food,” notes Gaspar. “For us, no pun intended, [pitas] are our bread and butter.”
Pita Power
The consumer perception is that pitas are a healthful alternative to bread.
“If you look at the foodservice market,” he notes, “more and more flatbreads are being featured on menus across the United States. Once again, we’re seeing pita bread becoming more mainstream, more acceptable and multi-dimensional.”
Grecian recently developed 25 recipes for one of its largest foodservice accounts and dedicated time to showing them how versatile pita bread can be. Recipes ranged from paninis to BLT sandwiches; homemade chips to salads; apple-cinnamon breakfast pockets to pizza.
To make a panini, a traditional 6- or 7-in. pita is filled with various ingredients — cheese, meat, and vegetables — and placed in a panini press.
“For a relatively low cost you have great plate presentation, great eatability and good function,” Gaspar says.
Another innovation, a Greek-themed pizza, goes by the creative moniker Plato’s Pie. Gyros meat, feta and a tzatziki sauce base are placed on a pita and baked. Gaspar says the company has had great success with the product in the foodservice area.
Excelling at pita and bakery production also has created challenges for Grecian: offering convenience, preventing breaking and cracking of pita products and meeting the demand for low-carb products.
To address convenience issues, Grecian developed a pre-folded pita. In this way, all the consumer or foodservice operator needs to do is place fillings in the middle and serve.
“That’s been a popular product for some of our sandwich-maker customers as well as our foodservice customers,” Gaspar notes. Another issue centered on the breakage and cracking associated with pitas. Grecian once again is on target, making changes and enhancements in the formulation of its product to ensure high-quality performance.
Grecian also developed a low-carb pita bread offering, focusing on flavor and performance. So great was their desire to produce the best product out there that the company added a food technologist with a bakery background to its team.
Grecian also worked with its supplier and vendor partners to determine what the best blend would be for its low-carb operations.
“We created what we believe [is] — and what to date has been adopted by several multi-chains — the best-tasting low-carb wrap that’s out there,” Gaspar says, “[and we] did that by optimizing the carbs but optimizing the flavor systems as well.”
The company worked to eliminate the bitterness and after-taste associated with low-carb bakery products. Extensive research was conducted with key partners in the seasonings area and ingredients area to develop a flavor system to be added to the product. The end result is a full-flavored, authentic wrap.
“The foodservice business is always defining the retail trends,” Gaspar says. “Very seldom has retail in and of itself led the way into innovation and to trends. And we’ve seen more and more foodservice operators embrace a pita bread and hummus sauce as a way to value-add and add interest to the menu. And based on that trend, we firmly believe the retail side of the business will also adapt that.”
Searching for Perfection
Hearkening back to the musings of Aristotle, who once said that “pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” Grecian dedicates itself to food safety, team effort and quality assurance, not only with its operational personnel but also with its salespeople. It can be said that the company truly strives to implement its motto — “If it’s to be, it’s up to me” — into its work ideal.
“In the past, if you were a stellar performer in food safety, you stood out,” Gaspar notes. “Today, the highest commitment to food safety with the larger accounts that we’re attempting to court and attract is simply the price of admission.”
To address this further, Grecian has made a number of investments in the facility with an emphasis on ingredient traceability.
“For a mid-market company to have made the wealth of investments in equipment and software and be able to trace an ingredient from the time it hits our door until the time it’s posted on a bill of lading is indicative of the measures we’ve taken and the commitments we’ve made to food safety.” he says.
Gaspar values autonomy and leaves his unique fingerprints on the company’s day-to-day operations by setting strategies that remove obstacles and hurdles from everyday jobs. He strives to give his employees the skills and confidence to move ahead and make on-the-spot decisions when necessary.
He also has high hopes for the company and is working to double its business over the next five years. As Grecian aggressively moves into broadline foodservice and more casual and quick-casual chains, Gaspar wants to gain an even greater focus while preserving the company’s core values of producing high-quality products, preserving an authentic product and providing excellent customer service.
“Our customers have made us better,” he explains. “As we’ve started to do business with larger entities, they have helped to make us better and helped us to achieve our vision of being a best-of-class company.”
As Grecian forges ahead firmly with its goals for the future, Gaspar notes that it is important to remember: “The legacy business is incredibly important, but we understand that our growth [and] our vision for growth demands that we expand into the mainstream and into all food channels.”
Spoken like a Greek philosopher. Opa!
At a Glance
Company: Grecian Delight Foods, Inc.
Headquarters: Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Brands: Grecian Delight and Opaa!
Products: Opaa! brand pita wraps, pocket pitas, pita chips and gyros kits
Plant: 200,000-sq.-ft. Elk Grove Village plant produces all pitas, gyros kits and base material for pita chips.
No. of lines: 3 bakery lines
No. of employees: more than 190
Key personnel
Founder/Chairman: Peter Parthenis, Sr.
President/CEO: Jim Gaspar
Sr. Vice President/CFO: Ted Sawicz
Vice President, Manufacturing/Logistics: Rick Hartman
Vice President, Procurement:  George Georganas
Director, Business Development:  Peter Parthenis, Jr.
Director, Quality Assurance: Mary Funteas
Manager, Bakery Operations: Michael Pietka
Manager, Human Resources: Stacy Parthenis