In elementary school, Karen Toufayan’s friends never knew what to make of her lunch. While the others munched on Wonder Bread, Karen usually unwrapped a pita. “Nobody knew anything about pita bread,” says Karen. “They couldn’t even pronounce it. People were like, ‘What is that?’” She says it was like that scene from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the popular girls make fun of Toula’s lunchtime staple, moussaka. (They call it “mouse kakka.”)
Decades later, nobody would laugh. Karen is the vice president of marketing and sales for Toufayan Bakeries, a multi-million dollar business, which sells 100 varieties of breads and baked goods, including pita. Along with her two siblings and father, the family operates factories in New Jersey, Orlando, and Plant City, Florida and employs upwards of 600 people. They are notable for being one of the largest family-owned bakeries in the country. More than this, they helped introduce pita to the United States—a food that was once virtually unknown to Americans and, today, is one of the country’s most beloved ethnic foods.
Karen’s grandfather was an Armenian who fled Turkey during the 1915 genocide. He first landed in Egypt, where he started a successful bakery. But by the 1960s, Egypt’s political situation had become precarious for the Armenian community, so the family migrated to Lebanon and, eventually, ended up in the United States in the early twenties.
At the time, Karen’s grandfather was 63, the age at which most Americans think about retiring. But he set out to rebuild the business he’d left behind. They purchased an apartment above a small shop in New Jersey and started baking. Karen’s father Harry was in his early twenties and split his time between an embroidery factory and the bakery. He routinely worked 17-hour days. For a while, the bakery mostly served other native Armenians and Egyptians. Soon, they began to supply ethnic restaurants in nearby Manhattan.
Then one day in the mid-1970s, Harry was waiting to pick up a deli order at the grocery store. He glanced around the counter and thought, “Boy, would this be a great place for my bread.” At this time, it was nearly impossible to find pita in any mainstream supermarket. Soon after, Harry Toufayan managed to sell his bread to Grand Union, followed by A&P, two prominent grocery chains.
Today, Toufayan products are in major supermarkets in all 50 states. They sell everything from pita, to hamburger buns, to cookies. In addition to helping popularize a centuries-old foodstuff from the Mideast, the company also keeps up with current dietary trends. They were one of the first companies to jump on the scooped-out bagel fad by producing a thinner “Smart Bagel.” Today, their products include vegan, non-GMO, no-salt, low-sodium, and low-carb varieties. Their latest innovation is—to no surprise—gluten-free pita chips.
Harry says his desire to succeed was largely motivated by a deep appreciation for his new life in the United States. He had long been enamored with America. As young students, he and his friends would kiss their U.S.-manufactured pencils. They were wowed by the landscapes featured in American movies. And it was clear to Harry that, as successful as his parents’ business in Egypt had been, America presented greater opportunity. “I was always looking to become a big manufacturer,” he says.
For this reason, and like many new immigrants, Harry Toufayan spent all of his time working. Even after he left the embroidery factory to work fulltime at the bakery, he continued working grueling 17-hour days. He was so busy, in fact, that his kids eventually came to work for him. “It was the only way that we could spend time with him,” says Karen.
She adds that Harry’s immigrant status was extremely helpful in the growth of the business. Importantly, he was filling a niche. But customers also responded to his gumption. They’d hear his imperfect English and think, “‘This is a hard-working guy who came to this country to make it, and I’ll give him a shot.’ That absolutely worked to his advantage,” says Karen.
In recent years, Harry Toufayan has sought out ways to give thanks for the life and livelihood he was able to build. Karen says her father will often load up his car with cookies to distribute to cops on patrol. After Hurricane Sandy, he delivered hundreds of bagels to firemen working along the Jersey shore. If he reads about a natural disaster—say a tornado in Oklahoma—he’ll immediately get trucks of bread on the road to those in need.
Meanwhile, at 75, Harry is still involved in the company’s daily operations. He remains close with many of his employees, including a handful who have been with him for nearly 40 years. Two men of Palestinian origin started sweeping floors at Toufayan when they were seventeen years old; today, they’re managers. This is what Harry expects of all his employees, immigrant and native-born alike. “This is the best country in the world,” says Harry. “We have the freedom to become either rich or poor. You work hard, and you get results.”