Most of us are familiar with pitas as the generic “pocket bread” sitting on grocery store shelves next to pre-packaged tortillas, or the round disc of bread that is stuffed with grilled chicken and Caesar dressing at a number of fast food chains. While these pitas are sold as a healthy and fresh alternative to other bread products – and, yes, to a certain extent they are both healthy and fresh food – the truth is that most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have never had an opportunity to experience authentic and fresh pitas.
Luckily, one man is setting out to change all that with NL Pita, Newfoundland and Labrador’s first ever commercial pita-baking business. The yellow cartoon sun and swooping curved font that has been popping up at markets and in grocery stores is the brainchild of Ali Modir, a Memorial University PhD candidate, chemistry buff, and Iranian immigrant who has called St. John’s, NL, home since 2006.
Ali has been involved with AXIS Career Services since 2010, when he came to our office for assistance with his job search. At that time, he and his wife had settled in Newfoundland and began raising a family while Ali continued working on his PhD in Chemistry at Memorial University, and taking part in AXIS’ Internship Placement Program. As if that wasn’t enough to keep them busy, Ali was also interested in the possibility of starting his own business.
Ali worked with AXIS’ Business Development Support Services program over the next couple of years to learn about Canadian and provincial business standards, research the local consumer market, and develop his business plan. In 2013, he made the decision to move forward with his idea to open Newfoundland and Labrador’s first large-scale pita and flatbread production facility.
After finding a modified warehouse space on O’Leary Avenue, Ali purchased the industrial baking equipment from a retired business owner and had it shipped from Ontario to St. John’s, NL, in March 2014. He spent months stripping the machinery, cleaning the components, and calibrating the controls to ensure everything met production, health, and safety standards – something that he has already received praise from by several inspectors. While Ali admits the tinkering and fine-tuning took much longer than originally anticipated, he says it was worth it because, “basically we now have brand new equipment."
At its heart, NL Pita is a family business: Ali, his father-in-law, and two brothers-in-law tend to the various aspects of production, from mixing and transporting ingredients, to ensuring the equipment is running properly, to ongoing quality control at each step of the process. In August 2014, NL Pita began baking pitas to provide samples to local businesses and markets. The facility and process are a hybrid of traditional methods and modern technology.
A simple mixture of flour, sugar, yeast, and water are mixed by hand before being transferred to a six-foot high commercial mixer that produces perfectly blended 60lbs batches of pita dough. After letting the dough rise, they divide the mixture by hand and transfer it to a machine that uses a laser-guided system to measure and cut each individual piece of dough, ensuring that the final pitas are the same size and consistency.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of equipment is the commercial pita/flatbread oven. When Vikings first settled on the northern tip of Newfoundland, they heated their homes with a traditional hearth. These stone and clay fire pits were an innovative and efficient way to both warm the home and provide incredible heat for cooking. However, even the Vikings would be in awe of Ali’s modern day hearth – a sedan-sized stainless steel structure housing a brick interior that is heated to 1000 degrees by a 6-foot long flame. At this temperature, the flattened dough is superheated and in less than 10 seconds puffs up like a delicious pillow, creating the traditional pita “pocket” ready to be filled with chicken, hummus, and stir-fried vegetables. After cooling, the pitas are sorted, stacked, bagged, and labelled by hand – another one of the more traditional aspects of the business – before being delivered to local stores, or sold at local markets.
Even at this early stage, Ali has plans for ways to expand and introduce more unique Middle Eastern flavours to local tables. One misconception he hopes to break is the idea that ‘Middle Eastern’ is one single type of food. “Even the bread is very different,” he says, noting that the style and flavours vary greatly depending on which part of the country you travel to. “When I was young I would drive maybe 40kms to the north every week to buy their bread. Next time I go [to Iran], I want to drive there again and meet the people making it,” he explained.
NL Pita is currently available at Belbin’s Grocery (85 Quidi Vidi Road), and every Saturday at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market (102 Bonaventure Ave, next to the Remax Centre). You can also follow them on Twitter (@NLPita) and check out their Facebook page for sales and event updates (https://www.facebook.com/nlpita).