Today, flatbreads have become standard fare at many restaurants. But 50 years ago, when two brothers, who immigrated from Aitaneet, Lebanon, decided to start a Lebanese bakery producing pita flatbreads in Cleveland, Ohio, few Americans knew what they were, and even fewer had ever eaten one. Likely of even greater challenge to the Nahra brothers, Carl and Gus, neither spoke English. Yet their bakery, Aladdin Baking Company, remains a half-century later, having expanded, grown, and become a Cleveland landmark.
It was the inspiration of the brothers to rent a section of a building next door to the downtown ethnoreligious Maronite Church for their business baking their khubz and operating a Lebanese diner, that started them on their road to success. The bakery was the foundation of the business, with the diner in front, primarily to provide funds for the bakery. (See 50 Years of Flatbread, page 14, for the complete history.)
Today, Aladdin owns the full building, doubling its operations to 10,000 square feet; has a separate warehouse; and continues to be an after-church destination for the congregation of St. Maron Church for both its flatbreads and Mediterranean cuisine. Its products have become a standard item in regional grocery stores, and the company is looking to add another manufacturing facility, with a goal to go national.
While the 50 years has seen tremendous success for the company, that same timeframe also ages a person. So, with Carl and Gus ready for retirement, their sons Mitchell and Rick Nahra bought out their fathers in 2019. “When your fathers built something that stood for 50 years, it’s hard to let it go. We want to continue the family legacy,” Mitchell said.
“And when we look at the 50-some employees we have,” Rick added, “we wanted to make sure we honor them also.”
“We wanted to make sure they never ever had to fill out another resume in their lives,” Mitchell said. “We see a lot of future here. We want to build the business for the next generation.”
FSQA. It wasn’t, however, just the strategic selection of location that enabled Aladdin’s success. Building today’s success included “hard work and strong family values within our leadership,” Rick said. Along with, “50 years of trial and error to make exceptional products,” said Director of Quality and Food Safety Paul Storsin. Fifty years that have led to today’s key food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) processes and practices, some of which include:
- Supply Chain Awareness. The facility only uses approved suppliers that are GFSI certified. “This assures that the suppliers’ facilities are held to the same standards as ours,” Storsin said. All ingredients and packaging supplies are required to provide a COA with each lot for assurance that it was inspected and met all FDA standards.
- Contamination Containment. The facility has a detailed sanitation program that is implemented daily prior to production. It is a preventive control that is validated by the pre-production inspection, weekly ATP testing, and monthly microbiological testing program.
- Foreign Material Detection. “The facility has a strict foreign material program that is controlled by metal detection prior to packaging,” Storsin said. The metal detector is checked prior to production, continuously during production, and at the end of production to assure the final products are compliant.
Most recently, Storsin sees some of the measures that were put in place to reduce the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic as having food safety benefits as well. (See The Aladdin Baking Company in QA May-June 2020.) For example, Aladdin changed its sanitation program to add dry-heat cleaning in high-touch areas of Zones 2 and 3 and to increase the number of sanitation stations. While some food facilities may cut back some on the enhanced sanitation of COVID-19 when those workers are needed for production, the pandemic brought about an industry change and heightened awareness.
He also has seen an increase in environmental testing from just microbiological swabbing for pathogens to include ATP and other TPC counts for viral and other such contamination. “People are more aware of what’s happening and are taking precautions,” Yaacoub said.
There also is an increased emphasis on the supply chain and acceptance of incoming goods, Storsin said. Without having been requested to do so, many of Aladdin’s suppliers started providing COVID letters, stating the risk management steps they had taken. “It was the suppliers who put it in place,” he said. “It’s something that just happened.” But Aladdin will now be requesting such letters from all suppliers, further enhancing its own risk management.
“People are now doing things, not because they are being told to, but to protect themselves,” he said. “And when it all dies down, I hope people will keep at it.”
CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT. As its 50 years illustrate, Aladdin is not a company that is content to rest on its laurels, rather it has a strong focus on continuous improvement. One aspect of this is its R&D group focused on developing new products to both increase healthfulness and meet trends. They have developed pitas with flaxseed, hemp, and/or high concentration of Omega 3 and are currently finalizing a garlic naan; all of Aladdin’s naan products are dairy free, and the company is “exploring what is hot,” Rick said. “But there’s only so much we can do, because we don’t want to impact the docking.” (See The Process section of this article for more on docking.)
The company also became fully GFSI-BRC certified last year, receiving a AA rating. “We were able to do it quickly because we are small, and everyone worked together,” Storsin said. To prepare, he said, the company invested a lot of money into the plant, purchasing a new mixer, proofer, and oven; enhanced employee training; validated preventive controls throughout the plant, requiring PCQI sign-off; and “wrote out SSOPs for everything. We didn’t have this binder before,” he said, holding out a fat binder of standards. “We wanted to have it in writing so it could be visually seen that we are doing everything we said we would.”
Automation also has played a major role in Aladdin’s growth, enabling increased productivity, profitability, and employee retention, said COO and Engineering Manager Jean Yaacoub. Some steps still require manual labor, but he said, “We are in the process of acquiring new equipment to further automate the process.”
THE PROCESS. What, exactly is that process? The first step is the delivering of ingredients to the facility, including the primary ingredient: the bulk flour that is stored in a 75,000-pound capacity silo, which is “built inside our facility to protect the flour from the elements,” Yaacoub said. Consistency of each truckload is required, with a COA to ensure consistency of the final product. Next:
- An automated system dispenses the specified weight of bulk flour into a hopper above the mixer. The flour, water, and other separately mixed ingredients are then dispensed into the mixer, which is set to the specified mixing time.
- Once mixed, the dough goes into a bin, is covered, and sits for about 30 minutes to rest, ferment, and rise. A mix averages about 500 pounds, from which 820 packages of pitas are produced.
- Once the dough rises and is ready for processing, it goes into a chunker, then through a rounder — in which it is divided into individual doughballs. Each product has its own size and weight specifications, and weights are recorded as the dough balls exit the divider to fall into the cups of an intermediate proofer. The dough balls travel on the timed conveying system for about 15 minutes to “de-stress and relax.”
- The balls are then flattened into rounds in a two-stage sheeting system, in which a roller sheers the dough one direction into an oval, then turns it 90° through a second roller to shape the rounder. The sheeted/flattened dough then goes into the second and final proofer.
- It is at this point that a flatbread (or naan) and pita diverge. The flatbread is docked — with divots stamped into the dough to release the steam generated during baking, keeping the top and bottom sealed together. The pitas are not docked, so that steam is trapped within, causing the split between the top and bottom surfaces, and creating the distinctive pita “pocket.”
- Both products are baked at extremely high heat of over 700°F for about a half minute. Aladdin also produces a foodservice pre-oiled flatbread, which is partially baked at a slightly lower temperature of about 600°F, allowing for the final grill at the foodservice establishment.
- Once baked, the pita or naan travel on an overhead cooling conveyor, which flows in tiers back and forth across the packaging area for the specified amount of time. The cooled product is stacked and bagged, tagged with a lot code closure, measured and weighed to meet specifications, and run through a metal detector to ensure no foreign material is in the bread.
The final product has a distinctive lightness of texture and flavor, Yaacoub said. “The taste is different because of the ingredients we use and the way we do the process; the way we mix and bake. We try to keep a very clean label,” he said. If more aspects of the process were automated, the products could be sold at a lower price, but the quality and taste wouldn’t be as good, he said. Additionally, he said, “We’re always pushing for continued improvement to keep it softer longer.” The goal is to have a 14-day shelf life, and that, he said “has a lot to do with the ingredients.”
CONTINUED GROWTH. “Our fathers perfected the pita brand,” Mitchell said. “They built a brand known throughout Ohio.” And now cousins Mitchell and Rick are in the process of expanding to a larger headquarters and developing new products and lines for continued growth, while also maintaining the downtown Cleveland facility. “We are in the process of moving to and redesigning a state-of-the-art pita chip, crouton, and crostini manufacturing facility,” Rick said. Aladdin currently produces these at another facility on a small scale, but is now looking to purchase a large headquarters building — which it would have up and running by 2021.
While maintaining the downtown setting may not seem ideal for a food production facility, the decision to retain it is based on both its retail store having become a fixture in downtown and its workers’ desire to stay in that area. Being a family business, Mitchell said, “Our family is very tight. Family comes first; and our employees’ families are our family.”
“As long as we make decisions as to what’s best for the business, not as individuals, I think we will always do well,” Rick said. “We want to take everything our fathers had done and take it to the next level. And since they worked so hard to build it, they’re very proud that it’s staying in the family.”