Supermarkets are responding to new consumer habits with innovation

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Supermarkets respond to emerging consumer habits with real innovation Phenicia Specialty Foods in downtown Houston provides a prime example: a state-of-the-art 28,000 square foot market that opened in November 2011 at One Park Place-rise, across from Discovery Green Park. The Market became downtown Houston’s first grocery store in over 40 years.

City dwellers and workers now have a one-stop-shop Yummy! store stocked with all the market favourites. These include a sandwich bar, salad bar, olive bar, espresso bar and bakery with desserts and breads, prepared daily by European and Mediterranean chefs. The market also has a fresh pizza corner.

“The in-store experience is always our priority,” said Ann-Marie Tcholkian, one of the owners of the family business. “From there, everything evolves.”

Making pita bread

Phenicia Specialty Foods’ pita belt in West Houston produces 4,000 to 4,500 loaves per hour, operating approximately 10 hours per day. This equates to around 50,000 pita breads per day.

The Houston grocer produces 16 million pita breads a year.

The process includes mixing the ingredients in an industrial mixer, then transferring the dough to the pita maker where the dough is automatically cut into dough rounds. Dough rounds pass through a 20-foot conveyor at the back of the house for flattening (3.5 minutes) and proofing (4.5 minutes).

The risen dough then passes through the glowing high-temperature oven, then squirts out the other end onto the pita belt, which is 70 feet long and can be visited on the ground floor of the store. This complete process takes about 30 minutes from start to product packaging.

The pita oven reaches up to 1,200 degrees F. This intense heat helps the pita puff up and form a pocket. The steam causes the pita to become puffy and round. Out of the oven, the pita bread lands on the pita bread belt where it is delivered from the mezzanine production level to customers on the first floor.

Although a spectacular visual, the long pita belt works as a cooling mechanism. By the time the pita reaches the ground floor, it’s cooler, flatter, and ready to wrap.

Eight different types of pita are produced on this conveyor. Classic, thin Lebanese-style pitas are produced, both wheat and white. The large white pita pocket is the best seller.

A smaller 50-foot pita belt and oven sits next to the main pita belt. This produces more specialty and handmade breads and flatbreads such as Palestinian bread, Iraqi bread, tannour, pizza dough, cheese bread, zaatar bread, etc.

The pita belt is the brainchild of Zohrab Tcholakian, one of the founders of Phenicia Specialty Foods, who has a background in architectural engineering. The pita belt was created in honor of the company’s roots

Customers young and old see the pita production line as a whimsical special gift for the local community. Phenicia Specialty Foods is named after the Phoenicians, master shipbuilders and sailors who transformed the Mediterranean into a great maritime trading arena. The Phoenicians were known as the purple people because of the purple silks they traded.

Internal efficiency

The diversity the stores carry can translate into other areas, she added. The Houston grocer focused more on internal operations: the product line and customer service.

“Certainly people are looking for curbside delivery,” she said. “We are happy to offer it at this time.”

Phenicia Specialty Foods employs 125 to 150 people and the restaurant has another 40. The retailer never closed during the pandemic.

“Finding and keeping the right workforce has been difficult. In our key positions, we kept our staff from the pre-COVID days,” Tcholkian said. “We have a loyal and enthusiastic workforce. They help us in our daily decisions. They are downstairs with everyone else. There is a desire to work as a team. »

Origins of a specialty grocery store

Phenicia Specialty Foods is a dream that began small in 1983. Arpi and Zohrab Tcholakian, formerly Lebanese and of Armenian descent, opened Phenicia Deli, a 2,500 square foot Mediterranean-style delicatessen and deli, on Westheimer Road in Houston. . Zohrab convinced Arpi that it would be better for them to pursue their passion for food and not wait for the layoffs that awaited Zohrab engineers when the oil industry collapsed in the 1980s.

As a child, Zohrab enjoyed working in his father’s corner grocery store in Lebanon. The business came very naturally to them and despite the economic downturn of the 1980s, the Tcholakians were determined and gained a loyal following. Phenicia Deli still thrives as a restaurant just across from its original location and is now called Arpi’s Phenicia Deli after the family matriarch.

In 1992, Phenicia Deli rented space to store the many imported goods they received. Soon retail and wholesale customers began to flock to the storage space for a crate of their desired and hard-to-find specialty items, and eventually this grocery storage space became a food market. of specialty.

In 2006, Phenicia Specialty Foods was born, a 55,000 square foot international food market located across from the deli. Since then, the company has continued to grow and has tripled in size, thanks to loyal gourmet friends.

“We are still at the heart of a family business with very involved owners, but with a different set of challenges in growing and scaling,” Tcholkian said. “Our specialization in supplying the regions of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe and Eastern Europe has contributed to our sustainability. My parents, founding owners from the start, wanted to make sure we weren’t too specialized and not too over the top that we lost our strength of staying true to this niche and serving foods we grew up on. and which were part of our roots. . Plus, we’ve amplified our ability to find ways to produce hard-to-find or labor-intensive foods.

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