Going with the Grain: How a U.S. Immigrant Family’s Pita Business Went Global

Kontos Foods

Often, a simple product made with care and a dedication to quality can form the basis of a business that takes consumers by storm and skyrockets from a small family business to an international phenomenon. Such is the case for Kontos Foods, a company based in Paterson, New Jersey, which specializes in hand-stretched pita and flatbread. The company, which started as a father-son venture in 1987, now ships its delicious hand-stretched pitas, filo products and pastries, gyro meat, traditional Mediterranean specialties, like falafel, and cheese and olive selections to 12 countries around the globe.

Humble Beginnings

Kontos-Foods-National-Retail-AssociationKontos Foods, which was founded by Steve Kontos and his father, Evripides Kontos, is a perfect example of immigrant entrepreneurs bringing a piece of their home country to the United States and using it to enrich Americans’ lives. An article from the BBC, “How a bakery found a recipe for global success,” author Zoe Thomas describes how Evripides Kontos started small. After he emigrated to the United States from Cyprus in 1948, he put his lifelong skills as a baker to good use and opened a filo pastry company, which operated under his expert supervision from 1968 until he sold it in 1984. When he and Steve decided to create a new business, they opted to focus on a Mediterranean food that most Americans are already familiar with: pita bread.

Catering to Demand

What sets Kontos Foods’s pitas apart from the dozens of other pita bread available worldwide is that Kontos sells different products based on what is in demand in a specific market. This level of customization allows the company to give customers what they want without wasting valuable product. Depending on the market, customers can buy over 50 varieties of flatbread from Kontos, including pizza bases, naans, flavored pitas, pocket pitas, and much more. Pitas are hugely popular in the United States, due in part to the country’s increasing ethnic diversity, which increases demand for culturally-specific foods. In 2017, pita sales in the United States totaled an impressive $117 million.

All of the products from Kontos Foods are produced in the company’s three bakeries in New Jersey and are frozen before shipment to ensure freshness upon arrival. Kontos Foods now bakes 35 million packs of pitas and other flatbreads per year, 10% (3.5 million) of which are enjoyed internationally in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and the Caribbean. The company has focused specifically on Middle Eastern markets, where flatbreads are a local staple that require no explanation, and where they are willing to offer their goods at prices designed to compete with existing local companies.

Kontos-Flatbread-Immigrant-SuccessFor exporters like Kontos Foods, changing recipes by region is essential for capturing market attention. According to Orion Kelly, a director of international trade at OCO Global, an economic advisory firm, “Most companies want to move more quickly [abroad] than they should, and so they’ll take a rubber stamp approach where they take what works here, and they just go into the market, apply that and often fail.” Kontos Foods has bypassed this snag by learning what its customers want and providing an unbeatable, flavorful product. One of its most recent innovations is mini cocktail flatbreads, which it introduced to the culture-hungry Japanese market in 2009.

Attracting Corporate Talent

To realize their dreams of expanding their business internationally, the Kontos’s got in touch with Warren Stoll, a former marketing boss at Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods producers. Mr. Stoll was impressed by both the company’s delicious flatbreads and their initiative to expand globally. He has since presented Kontos Foods at trade shows all over the world, winning over new markets to the company’s tasty Mediterranean offerings. Most importantly, exposure at trade shows has allowed the company to gain distributors in new markets, which is key to its ongoing success. Distributors trust the expertise of individuals like Mr. Stoll, as they know which products have staying power in any given area and will be profitable in the long-term.

Hiring Local Talent

Although it has grown to become a globally-recognized company, Kontos Foods relies upon its 200 talented American employees. These workers are the true backbone of the company, and hand stretch and bake the delicious flatbreads and pitas that form the base of its product offering. Employees of Kontos Foods work in three factories in Paterson, New Jersey, and make about 450,000 kg of flatbreads and pitas each week. For companies like Kontos Foods, which are rooted in foreign cultures, a staff of American workers is a valuable connection to local markets. These jobs are valuable to the Paterson economy. The local area is densely populated, second only to New York City in terms of population per square mile, and is well-known as an immigrant hub, particularly Arab and Muslim immigrants, for whom access to familiar foods like pitas and flatbreads are a welcome reminder of home.

An Example for Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Evris KontosFor would-be immigrant entrepreneurs, stories like that of the Kontos family serve as a reminder that success in the U.S. is not only possible, but that with the right approach and attention to market demand can result in profit from markets all over the world. Companies in the United States have access to both corporate and local talent, and for those who can attract the attention of prominent names, like Warren Stoll, in Kontos Foods’s case, the rewards can be tremendous compared to what they might accomplish in their home country. The United States is home to truly global tastes, and it maintains its status as the ultimate melting pot of cultures. Those entrepreneurs willing to take the steps necessary to realize their dreams of opening their own business in the United States, and who are able to exploit a market niche with a far-reaching appeal, have the same opportunities that the Kontos family had in 1987. For those willing to put in the work, the potential for success in the United States is truly limitless.

Options for Foreign Entrepreneurs

Immigrant entrepreneurs and investors can achieve their own business dreams via several visas designed for entrepreneurs seeking to start their own ventures in the United States. These include the E-1 treaty trader visa, which is designed for international companies that either already has a U.S. presence or would like to establish one, and who do, or will perform international trade between the United States and the treaty country. Click on the following link to learn more about the E-1 treaty trader visa.

For those seeking a temporary solution for expanding their business to the U.S., the L-1 Visa is an excellent option. The L-1 allows a business owner, manager, or specialized knowledge employee to relocate temporarily to the U.S. location (subsidiary, affiliate, or branch) of their company for work purposes. Click the following link to learn more about the L1 Business Plan you are required to submit with your application.

Another route for investors is the E-2 Treaty Investor Visa, which is a non-immigrant temporary visa for nationals of a country with which the United States maintains a treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation, or the EB-5 Visa, a direct investment visa for individuals who have invested, or are in the process of investing; at least $1 million in a new business endeavor employing at least ten full-time employees within a two-year period. Click the following link to learn more about the E2 Business Plan that must be created and submitted with your E2 visa application.

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