By Leslie Krowchenko, Special to the Hellenic News of America
Check out any local market and you will no doubt see Kontos Foods products.
Dine in a Greek or Mediterranean restaurant and you will no doubt taste them.
The company, founded by the father/son team of Evripides and Steve Kontos, has been educating palates about all things Greek and Mediterranean for more than 35 years. The family flatbread/fillo history, however, stretches nearly a century.
“My dad was always the face of the business,” said Steve. “I was the one behind the scenes.”
A phyllo mastoras (master fillo maker), Evripides emigrated to the United States from his native Cyprus in 1948. He was introduced to, and hired by, the owner of Constantinople Pastry Shop, one of only two bakeries in the New York City area producing the paper-thin dough.
Evripides soon ventured out on his own, opening Apollo Bakery in the Greater New York City area in 1968. After more than 25 years of hard work, he sold the business in 1984.
He couldn’t stay away from the ovens for long. Three years later, he and Steve formed the company known today as Kontos Foods.
“He was the baker,” said Steve. “I was the one who went to market and together we built the business one case at a time.”
Fillo is the basis for baklava (layered pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey), spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and tiropita (layers of pastry filled with a cheese-egg mixture), but Steve felt the future was in pita and flatbread, based on trends he noticed in Europe and the United States. He and his father experimented with numerous family recipes, many dating to the 1960s, ultimately perfecting the pocket-less pita.
“I thought ‘this has potential,’” he added. “It would definitely capture a larger market share than fillo.”
For those who enjoy the meat, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki of a stuffed Gyro, the phrase “pocket-less pita” may sound like an oxymoron. The bread with the pocket is Middle Eastern, noted Steve, and he saw flatbread (Greek pita) as a far more versatile product.
His suspicion was correct. The global flatbread market, valued at $38.8 billion in 2018, is estimated to reach $62.8 billion by 2026 (https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/). The thickness of the bread can range from a few millimeters to a few centimeters and often serves as a substitute for a spoon or fork to wrap food. Multigrain varieties are gaining popularity due to increased health awareness.
Kontos Foods produces nearly 60 flavors and shapes of flatbread, plus fillo dough and fillo products. Every ball of dough is hand-stretched, making each piece one-of-a-kind with the feel of a crisp crust and fluffy center. New flavors are introduced to the market regularly – the most recent additions to their product line are a pocket-less pita baked with EVOO (extra virgin olive) and a high fiber, garlic version.
The signature pocket-less pita is complimented by an array of artisanal flatbreads, including panini, pizza crust, low carb and tandoori nan (traditional East Indian flatbread).
“We put the word ‘flatbread’ out there,” said Steve. “What we saw as a large opportunity truly was.”
Man (and woman) does not live by flatbread alone and Kontos Foods offers authentic Mediterranean products in a variety of categories, including appetizers, meats, cheeses, dips, yogurt, olives, and desserts. Products include dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice), EVOO, hummus, pepperoncini (hot chili peppers), falafel and roasted eggplant. The company also serves as a distributor for imported, regional products such as tahini (sesame paste used for cooking and the main ingredient in hummus) and taramosalata (red caviar whipped with bread and olive oil). All items are Halal and Kosher certified and sold directly to stores, restaurants and distributors.
Kontos Foods is a 24/7 operation in Paterson, New Jersey, where 350 employees work in three bakery facilities and a distribution center. The company distributes their products across the United States and sales vary across different regions with diverse tastes.
Products are also shipped internationally to countries including Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mexico, Qatar, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and United Arab Emirates, plus Europe and South America.
“Our overseas growth has been strategic,” said Steve. “We’re constantly surveying local trends and putting forth products that appeal to different consumers.”
Supermarkets and food specialty stores may carry appetizers (bite-size spanakopita and tyropita) and baked goods (baklava, kataifi and nut rolls), although retail sales are a smaller percentage of the company’s business. The majority of its foods are shipped to restaurants, hotels, industrial caterers, hospitals, schools/colleges/universities, ball parks – just about anywhere one can eat in/take out on those nights when cooking is not part of the plan.
When the stove is on, the website offers numerous recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Foods range from Greek standards such as homemade gyros, lemon orzo soup and karidopita (walnut cake with syrup) to ones with a more global flair like pepperoni three cheese pizza, sweet and spicy grilled shrimp and chocolate hazelnut crepe cake.
Like most companies, Kontos Foods’ goals have changed as it has grown. The first few years were characterized by setting and hoping to make specific quotas. After more than three decades, the products and customers have diversified and the new goals include continuing and expanding flatbread business, developing new marketing strategies and following current and future trends.