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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Milwaukee: America’s Pita Capital

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Americans have access to some of the richest, most diverse culinary traditions on the planet because of all the recipes immigrants have brought with them from their native countries. Ethnic specialties such as tortillas, pizza and sushi have become common in the American diet because people, craving their favorite foods from home, began making and selling them here. Pita, a flat, round bread, is a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, and because of George and John Kashou, a hardworking pair of brothers from Ramallah, Palestine, Milwaukee is now home to Kangaroo Brands, a local bakery that has been producing pita products since 1979.

The Kashou family put down roots in Milwaukee when George and John’s grandfather immigrated to the city in 1910 and opened Kashou Carpets. The grandsons arrived with their father, who was going to run the carpet shop, when they were still children. As adults who had been raised in the United States with strong Arabic influences, George and John saw a void in the Midwest market as it pertained to good, authentic pita bread.

“George said, ‘I can sell it if you can make it,’” Jenna Kashou says of her father and uncle starting the business together. “So George does all the sales and marketing, and John does the engineering and operations. They really are the perfect team.”

The Kashous still make pita bread in the same bakery they started in on the northwest side of Milwaukee, but the facility has expanded multiple times. Because he and his brother were among the first pita bread makers in the United States, John Kashou engineered and manufactured most of the company’s equipment himself. In 2003 Kangaroo Brands earned a U.S. patent for its pre-opened pocket bread.

In 2005, Kangaroo pita pockets were featured on the Food Network show “Unwrapped.” The episode showcases how salt, sugar, yeast, flour and water are combined to create a massive ball of pita dough. The unrisen dough travels to an automatic extruder that flattens it into a half-inch-thick sheet, a process that relaxes and softens the dough. After a dusting of flour that keeps it from getting sticky, the dough is flattened even further before being cut into the circular pita shape. The dough is given time to rise before it rides on a conveyor belt through a 700-degree oven. The extreme temperature causes the water in the dough to quickly turn to steam, which puffs up the dough like a balloon, creating a pocket from the two layers of bread. A worker on the line pats down the newly formed pockets before the pitas are cut, stacked and packaged.

According to Kashou, the company produces 3 million pita pockets a week. The pita bread plant is also where Kangaroo produces its omelet pita, a frozen microwaveable breakfast-on-the-go made using fresh pita bread stuffed with eggs, veggies, meat and cheese.

In 2006, Kangaroo acquired a former bagel factory, also on the northwest side of the city, to accommodate the company’s expansion into pita chip territory. The plant, which produces Kangaroo’s baked, all-natural pita chips in six different flavors, has allowed the hometown bakers to become the second-largest producers of pita chips in the country (the largest producer is Frito-Lay, which owns Stacy’s Pita Chips), and the largest producer in Canada.

Kangaroo has developed a sound reputation for making healthy foods with a clean list of ingredients, meaning there aren’t any genetically modified organisms (GMO) or additives that are hard to pronounce. The company also sources most of its ingredients from the Midwest.

When asked how the family-owned business competes in an industry dominated by massive food companies such as Nestlé and Kraft, Kashou says Kangaroo’s method is simple.

“We don’t focus too much on what our competitors are doing because the resources they have, and the volume that they can do, is just so different,” Kashou explains. “What we really focus on is doing what we do well—being able to call the shots and not make decisions based solely on money. We make our decisions based on health and what’s good for our customers.”

For more information on Kangaroo Brands, visit www.kangaroobrands.com.