Karen Toufayan, VP Sales & Marketing of Toufayan Bakeries, talks about her family business and shows part of the process of pita bread making at their facility in Ridgefield on 10/04/18. The Toufayan family is celebrating it’s 50th year of doing business in New Jersey. North Jersey Record
Standing in line in the late 1960s at a supermarket cold cut counter with folks waiting on their baloney and roast beef, Harry Toufayan had an epiphany.
“This would be a perfect place, right here, to sell my bread,” his daughter Karen recalled.
That realization led to a decision that ultimately would introduce Americans to pita bread — the round flat bread with a pocket that his family had been making since 1926.
“He put 12 packages of his pita bread iin whatever box he had from his grocery store and knocked on the door of A&P and Grand Union,” Karen Toufayan said.
Those two supermarket chains are gone — but Toufayan Bakeries, which marks its 50th year of operations in the U.S. next month — is still going strong.
The company makes one million loaves of pita bread daily. It has expanded to make hot dog and hamburger buns, bread sticks and pita chips, cookies and gluten-free products.
Toufayan Bakeries employs more than 800 employees at its Ridgefield headquarters and two other plants in Florida. Some of those employees have been with the company for more than 40 years.
The story of how the third-generation family run business made it this far is a classic American narrative.
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It’s a story of immigrants fleeing persecution, coming to the U.S. without much in the way of money and finding opportunities through long hours, hard work and a bit of luck.
That plus a small round piece of flat bread with a pocket into which could you could tuck your meal.
From Armenia to Egypt to America
The Toufayans were Armenians who fled their country around 1915 to escape genocide and the Ottoman Empire.
Harry’s father Haroutioun settled in Egypt, where he started a bakery in 1926. But in the 1960s, the family immigrated again. First to Connecticut and then New Jersey.
Harry went to work in an embroidery mill to save money for his own bakery while his dad worked for a bakery in Brooklyn.
By November 1968, they opened a small grocery store in West New York with a bakery in the back. Harry married Suzanne, who was from Queens, and they lived in an apartment above the bakery.
In the evenings, Harry would load his Chevrolet station wagon with bakery products and make deliveries in Manhattan, mostly to ethnic restaurants in Greenwich Village.
“He was a big fan of American cars,” his daughter Karen recalled. “He thought they brought him lots of luck.”
It took more than luck, though, to grow the company. Karen Toufayan recalled how her father worked seven days a week, taking off every other Sunday.
On Sundays, she remembered going with him to church and to New York Cosmos soccer games.
As pita bread orders increased, the bakery expanded, moving to North Bergen at a Kennedy Boulevard location where the baking process was greatly automated.
The company also started its first marketing campaign with a picture of a young boy eating pita bread. The youngster was Greg Toufayan, who today is vice president in charge of operation.
His other sister Kristine oversees human resources. Karen Toufayan oversees sales and marketing.
Toufayan’s massive operation
The company moved 18 years ago to the current headquarters, a 200,000-square-foot facility on Railroad Avenue. The bakery section of that building hums with the sounds of flat bread, wraps, organic naan bread and other products rolling off the lines.
It’s a massive operation. One machine tosses dough the size of a small bear and kneads it as if it were salt water taffy.
Each pita bread starts out as a small round ball of dough. These are relaxed on a series off conveyer trays before they are flattened and proofed, a process where the yeast rises.
After being baked in ovens that reach 1,000 degrees, they travel along a towering set of conveyor belts so that they can cool long enough before being stacked in piles of six and slipped into plastic bags.
A few years ago, the company expanded to a pair of plants in Orlando and Plant City, Florida.
The latter was a former Archway cookie factory that the company originally bought to make hot dog and hamburger rolls.
But after seeing the cookie lines in operation, Harry Toufayan saw opportunity and decided to expand the building and keep the cookies, naming the brand after his first granddaughter, Sophia.
Karen Toufayan said one thing her father prefers not to call attention to is the relief work the company does during natural disasters.
It started one morning when he asked his daughter if she had seen the news about tornadoes that had torn through Oklahoma.
“He said I want you to call our customers in Oklahoma. I’m going to load up some trucks with whatever we can…and we’ll drive it out there.”
Similar efforts happened after Superstorm Sandy, a major fire in Edgewater and flooding in Houston, New Orleans and North Carolina.
“He always says you can’t take it with you,” Karen Toufayan said.
“This country has afforded him many, many opportunities and many, many blessings and it’s really important to give back,” she added. “It makes him happy, proud and gives him great joy to be able to help others.”
Karen Toufayan said her dad still stops in at the Ridgefield plant about six days each week.
“He runs circles around my brother, sister and I,” Karen Toufoyan said. “He doesn’t have a lot of hobbies. We joke that work is his hobby.”
“He’s very passionate about his work. He’s passionate about having his family members surround him,” she added. “I think he’s hoping that future generations of our kids and Toufayans will continue on with what he’s started.”