Growing Taste for Mediterranean

March 5, 2013

Inside a refurbished two-story warehouse in Paterson’s down-at-the-heels Bunker Hill area, a homegrown company is riding the nation’s wave of enthusiasm for Mediterranean cuisine.

Workers dressed in white overalls operated a mechanized production line Wednesday morning, mixing, cutting and shaping fillo — a paper-thin dough made by Kontos Foods that is used to make Greek or Middle Eastern pastries.

The production line, which was opened about a month ago, is the latest move in a steady expansion by family-owned Kontos, which in recent years has included buying its leased manufacturing and distribution facility, expanding the building and buying another one to house the fillo dough operation.

The projects were backed by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which issued bonds that were acquired by TD Bank. The two property acquisitions, the purchase of machinery and equipment, and related expenses cost $11.5 million, according to EDA records.

And despite the fact that the company added a second floor to double the size of the latest acquisition to 45,000 square feet, the expansion is still not enough, said Warren Stoll, the company’s marketing director.

“This was pretty much maxed out the day we started,” said Stoll, as he showed off the refurbished building with Steve Kontos, company vice president and a co-founder.

“We are working 24 hours a day to fill orders for Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and China,” Kontos said. He said the company added a second floor to the building, rather than develop the parking lot, so that it would still have space to expand there in the future.

The company was started in 1987 by Kontos and his father, Evris, at the time making pita bread. It now has 200 employees, 10 of whom were added when the new facility was opened. And the product line has since expanded to include 50 bread products, as well as yogurts, crepes, wraps and other items sold nationwide through retail outlets and to restaurants and hotels.

While the expansion is driven in part by growing name recognition for Kontos products, another key factor is the rising interest among American consumers in Mediterranean foods, Stoll said.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research company, said the increased interest in Mediterranean foods can be seen in the rise of Greek-concept franchises, such as Little Greek and Hungry Greek in Florida, and the Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill chain, which is soon to open a restaurant in Florham Park. In New Jersey, the It’s Greek to Me chain now has 10 restaurants, six of them in Bergen or Passaic counties.

“The second important indicator is the health and wellness trend,” in which Mediterranean food is perceived by consumers to be healthy, Tristano said. “These Mediterranean-style foods are designed for healthfulness, for lower calorie counts and are generally fresh in nature.”


Olive Garden stocks Sam’s Club shelves with dressing, cheese

May 11, 2012

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel, April 25, 2012

 Olive Garden’s Italian salad dressing and shredded cheese are now for sale in Sam’s Club stores across the country.

The Italian chain, owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, said Wednesday the products will be sold at Sam’s Club stores exclusively for a year. Darden, which also owns Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, will study sales results before determining whether to expand its new grocery business.

 It’s a chance “to extend the brand beyond the four walls of the restaurant,” Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said.

But don’t expect to buy breadsticks or chicken parmesan anytime soon. Darden says it would have difficulty re-creating the quality of its restaurant meals in frozen entrees, so it would stick with basic items such as the dressing and cheeses made by outside companies but marketed under the Olive Garden brand under a licensing deal.

T. Marzetti, which sells its own products in grocery stores, also makes the Olive Garden dressing. Lotito Foods produces the cheese blend.

Locally, a two-pack of 20-ounce Italian dressing bottles sells for $6.98. The 14-ounce, refrigerated blend of asiago, parmesan, romano and provolone cheeses carries a price tag of $7.98.

Olive Garden, which has already sold dressing in its restaurants for a decade, also will sell mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano cheese in select Sam’s Club stores. Those will include some in Central Florida.

Seeing Olive Garden venture into the grocery aisles isn’t a surprise, said Steve West, a restaurant-industry analyst for ITG Investment Research. “We’ve seen this kind of trend for years.”

P.F. Chang’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and California Pizza Kitchen all sell frozen meals. Tony Roma’s, which has its restaurant operations based in Orlando, also sells frozen entrees and recently began hawking ribs on a cable home-shopping network.

Analysts said Olive Garden’s food manufacturers would likely pay the restaurant chain between 5 and 10 percent of sales in royalties. It would be small change for Darden, a company that rings up $7.5 billion in sales each year.

“It builds brand awareness, which I’m not sure they really need to do, but it does give them another revenue stream which doesn’t take a lot of cost,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic. “I think even if it is successful, its not going to be that meaningful to a brand that’s so large.”

Tristano recently bought a bottle of Olive Garden dressing from Sam’s.

“I’m not sure it’s as good as it is at the restaurant,” he said. “That could be quality or psychology. I’m not sure. It’s close enough that I feel like it’s a nice opportunity.”


Wendy’s to go easier on animals

April 17, 2012

Wendy’s Co. is changing the way it treats chickens and pigs used in its food in an effort to be more humane.

The Dublin-based fast-food company’s animal-welfare council said yesterday that one of its chicken suppliers, O.K. Foods Inc. of Fort Smith, Ark., has started using a low-atmospheric-pressure system that renders the chickens unconscious before the birds are handled by plant workers.

The process is criticized by some animal-welfare groups but replaces the industry standard practice of stunning chickens with electricity.

Wendy’s said it is the first quick-service restaurant chain to back the system, and urged other chicken producers to embrace the practice.

The company did not disclose what percentage of its chicken comes from O.K. Foods.

“We just think it’s a more humane way to go, a superior alternative to conventional electrical stunning,” Wendy’s spokesman Bob Bertini said.

The move is part of an ongoing trend, not just in animal welfare but in corporate responsibility,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago restaurant- and food-research group.Many major chains are re-evaluating the way animals are treated in the food-service supply chain.”

By treating animals better, restaurants give consumers a better feeling about their meals, Tristano said.We’re still putting them in our mouth, but we care how it gets there.”

The downside:It very likely will increase the price of products.”

Wendy’s also said that it is working with its U.S. and Canadian pork suppliers to eliminate the use of sow-gestation stalls over time. Animal-rights groups say the individual stalls are inhumane, but pork producers say the larger stalls increase labor and food costs.

However, several major pork producers have agreed to phase out gestation crates.

Major pork buyer McDonald’s Corp. announced in February that it would phase out crates that tightly confine pregnant sows in a move that was predicted to be a major shift for the industry.

“I don’t think it’s something that is trendy in the sense that it comes and (goes),” said restaurant broker Randy Sokol of Sokol & Associates. “It’s a way of life now, something that we Americans want.”

Wendy’s has been working toward eliminating the use of the gestation stalls since 2007, Bertini said. “Our suppliers have been making progress in that area, and we felt it important that all of our suppliers now move in that direction.”

The upgrades are part of continuing efforts by Wendy’s animal-welfare council, which has been in place since 2001, Bertini said. “A major part of the program has been the auditing process of our beef, poultry and pork suppliers throughout the U.S. and Canada, up to two times a year. If suppliers do not meet our standards, they are terminated.”

Although Bertini did not know how many suppliers have been dropped, “it has taken place over the last 11 years. They’re very stringent standards and cover all areas of treatment.”

Wendy’s, the second-largest burger chain in the U.S., operates more than 6,500 restaurants around the globe. The company is trying to rejuvenate its image as a higher-end fast-food chain by updating stores, revamping its menu and making other efforts to reinvent itself after a failed merger with the Arby’s chain.

Dispatch reporter Tim Feran contributed to this story.