Supermarkets are responding to emerging consumer habits with true innovations Phoenicia Specialty Foods in downtown Houston offers a prime example: a 28,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art market that opened its doors in November 2011 at the One Park Place luxury high-rise, across from Discovery Green Park. The market became downtown Houston’s first grocery store in more than 40 years.

Urban residents and workers now have a one-stop Yummy! shop stocked with all of the market’s signature food favorites. These include a sandwich station, salad bar, olive bar, espresso bar and a bakery with desserts and breads, prepared daily by European and Mediterranean chefs. The market also features a fresh pizza corner.

“The instore experience is always our focus,” said Ann-Marie Tcholkian, one of the owners of the family-owned business. “From there, everything evolves.”

Pita bread production

The pita belt at Phoenicia Specialty Foods in west Houston produces 4,000 to 4,500 loaves per hour, running approximately 10 hours per day. This equates to roughly 50,000 loaves of pita on a daily basis.

The Houston grocer produces 16 million pita loaves a year.

The process includes mixing the ingredients in an industrial blender, then transferring the dough into the pita machine where the dough is cut automatically into dough pucks. The dough pucks go through a 20-foot conveyor in the back of the house for flattening (3.5 minutes) and proofing (4.5 minutes).

The proofed dough then rides through the red-glowing, high-heat oven and then shoots out the other end on to the pita belt, which is 70 feet long and is visit on the ground level of the store. This full process takes about 30 minutes from start to bagged product.

The pita oven reaches up to 1,200 degrees F. This intense heat helps make the pita puff and form a pocket. Steam causes the pita to get puffy and round. Out of the oven, the pita lands on the pita belt where its is delivered from the mezzanine production level to the shoppers on the first floor.

While it is a dramatic visual, the long pita belt functions as a cooling mechanism.  By the time the pita reaches the ground floor, it is cooler, flatter and ready to pack.

Eight different types of pita are produced on this conveyor. Classic, thin Lebanese-style pita are produced, both wheat and white. The large white pita pocket is the best seller.

A smaller, 50-foot pita belt and oven sit next to the main pita belt. This produces more specialty and handmade breads and flatbreads such as Palestinian bread, Iraqi bread, Tannour, pizza dough, cheese bread, zaatar bread, and more.

The pita belt is the brainchild of Zohrab Tcholakian, one of the founders of Phoenicia Specialty Foods who has an architectural engineering background. The pita belt was created in honor of the company’s roots

Customers young and old consider the pita production line as a whimsical special gift to the local community. Phoenicia Specialty Foods is named after the Phoenicians, master ship builders and sailors who turned the Mediterranean into a great maritime trading arena. The Phoenicians were known as the purple people because of the purple silks they traded.

Internal efficiency

The diversity that instores carry can translate into other realms, she added. The Houston grocer has turned its focus more on internal operations: product line and customer service.

“Definitely, people are looking for curbside delivery,” she said. “We are happy to be offering it at this time.”

Phoenicia Specialty Foods employs 125 to 150 staff, and the restaurant has another 40. The retailer never closed during the pandemic.

“It’s been challenging to find and retain the right workforce. At our core positions, we have kept our staff from pre-COVID days,” Tcholkian said. “We have a loyal and enthusiastic workforce. They help with our everyday decisions. They are on the ground floor with everybody. There is a willingness to work as a team of people.”

Origins of a specialty grocer

Phoenicia Specialty Foods is a dream that started modestly in 1983. Arpi and Zohrab Tcholakian, formerly of Lebanon, and of Armenian descent, opened Phoenicia Deli, a 2,500 square foot, Mediterranean-style delicatessen and grocery, on Westheimer Road in Houston. Zohrab convinced Arpi that it would be best for them to pursue their passion for food and not wait for the layoffs that awaited those in Zohrab’s engineering profession during the collapse of the oil industry in the 1980s.

Zohrab as a child enjoyed working in his father’s corner grocery store in Lebanon. The business came very natural to them, and despite the economic downturn of the 1980s, the Tcholakians were determined and created a loyal following. Phoenicia Deli still flourishes as a restaurant just across the street from where it once originated and is now called Arpi’s Phoenicia Deli after the matriarch of the family.

In 1992, Phoenicia Deli leased a space to store the many imported goods they were receiving. Soon, retail and wholesale customers started going to the storage space for a case of their desired, hard to find specialty items, and eventually this grocery storage space became a specialty foods market.

In 2006 Phoenicia Specialty Foods was born, a 55,000-square-foot international food market that sat across the street from the deli. The enterprise has continued to grow ever since, and has tripled in size, thanks to loyal foodie friends.

“We are still very much at the core a family business with owners who are very involved, but with a different set of growing pains and scale,” Tcholkian said. “Our specialization in the food of the Middle East, Mediterranean, European and Eastern European regions helped sustain us. My parents, founding owners from the beginning, wanted to make sure we were not too specialized and also not too overreaching that we lost our strength, which was staying true to this niche and serving food we grew up with and that were part of our roots. Also, we amplified our ability to find ways to produce hard to find or labor-intensive foods.”