Ozery Bakery has come a long way from the days of making pita bread by hand in the back of a sandwich shop in downtown Toronto in the late 1990s.
Today, the family-run company produces a variety of health-focused breads and crackers from its state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot bakery in Vaughan, Ont., which are sold to restaurants like Starbucks and in grocery stores such as Costco and Whole Foods.
Embracing technology has been key to its successful expansion, says Guy Ozery, chief executive officer of Ozery Bakery.
“If you don’t automate and you don’t use the newest technology possible to manufacture, you’re going to be left behind and it’s going to be very hard to compete,” Guy says.
Guy’s brother Alon Ozery started the business nearly 25 years ago after their father Al Ozery was making as many as 17 different kinds of pita bread each day in the back of the Pita Break restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley streets.
“The actual flavour was infused into the pita bread so it could be flax, zesty oregano, garlic, onion. Seventeen different kinds of pita bread, which was insane, but we didn’t know any better and just went and did it,” Guy says.
Customers started just buying the pita bread. As the business boomed, the family had to decide whether to add more Pita Break locations or go wholesale and sell the pita bread.
“We decided to go wholesale,” Guy says, noting that some of their first customers are still with them such as The Big Carrot and Pusateri’s Fine Foods in Toronto. “Slowly, we started growing into all the chains.”
The company continuously upgraded its baking process along the way, working with local companies to build custom automated production lines.
“It’s one of the secrets as to why the products are so good,” Guy says. “Everything there emulates the handwork. We invested a ton of money in order to get the results that we wanted.”
Today, Ozery Bakery can produce about 10,000 products an hour, compared to about 200 an hour by hand. “And the quality is either the same or better because of technology,” Guy says.
Ozery Bakery’s product lineup includes pitas, pre-sliced sandwich buns, fruit and grain morning buns, brioche buns, Moroccan-style frena buns and lavash crackers. Its products can also be found in Freshii, on board Air Canada flights, in major grocery and health food stores across Canada and at U.S. retailers such as Publix, Safeway and Sprouts Farmers Market. Later this year, its products are expected to be available in more than 4,500 Walmart locations in the U.S. About half of its sales today are south of the border.
The company, which has about 200 employees, is also taking as much paper and manual labour out of the business as possible.
For instance, this month Ozery Bakery will start rolling out a hand-held computer system for its direct-to-store in-house and independent distributors who deliver products straight to stores in Ontario and Quebec. It will replace the current manual, paper-based system. Direct-to-store delivery is vital for fresh-baked goods, Guy says.
The company is planning to add an online management system to track new products from inception to launch. It’s also looking at adding sensors to its production line to monitor potential equipment problems in real-time and flag when it’s time to do regular maintenance.
Not all family-run companies are successful at adopting new technology to expand their business, says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
He says many family businesses have the attitude of “why break what’s working” and don’t update systems. They see it as inauthentic.
“Technology can actually scare people and some families may feel that technology can denaturalize what they’ve been doing for many, many years," Mr. Charlebois says.
“A lot of family businesses are very protective of their culture and their products and often they won’t see their business model as being scalable,” he adds. “Once you get over that hump, then anything is possible.”
Guy says investing in innovation and automation was never an issue for the business.
“I love technology,” he says. “We had to suffer a lot and spend a lot of money,” to get the company to where it is today, he adds, “but it was worth it.”