It’s been interesting to hear about the different strategies that business owners are embracing, to thwart all of the COVID-19 curveballs.
One particular local business – Issa’s Baked Pita Chips – has got a humdinger of a story to tell. Owners James and Andrew Issa formerly ran Cedars Bakery & Deli, where they baked breads, served up lunches, and carried out family traditions that their father put into place when he launched the Lebanese bakery in 1981.
The crazy thing is, like so many other business owners, the Issas found themselves in a tight spot when COVID hit, as they watched their reliable accounts buckle under pandemic stress. Up until that time one of their biggest clients was the Buffalo Public School system, that ordered their chips. With that account on PAUSE, they knew that they had to pivot quick. The new plan was to rely on selling their flame-baked snacks at retail shops. It started off slowly, but they had their deli to back them up. Then, also thanks to COVID, the deli business was done, and they were in trouble.
“The business was saved by Wegmans,” Andrew Issa exclaimed. “For three years, we had been trying to get our pita chips into Wegmans. One day, we heard that it was finally happening, and the next day, we heard that Wegmans had put all new products on hold due to the pandemic, for the foreseeable future. We couldn’t believe it – it was a total shutdown, even though we had finally gotten our products authorized… after three years of trying! We got into Wegmans, and the world shut down. With nothing else to lose, I decided to write to Alessandra Cassini, who directed me to buyer Brent Holst, even thought the company was in chaos because of the pandemic. I told Brent that the items had been set up by corporate but never ordered. At the time, I still had my whole staff, but limited small accounts – we had shut down our deli because of slow sales during the pandemic – major parts of our wholesale business became non-existent… we needed to get our pita chips into a big retail market, quick.”
Issa said that the Buffalo buyer at Wegmans not only answered his email, he stepped up and made it happen. Thanks in part to a “Made Near Us” program, launched by Wegmans, the company decided that it was important to not let the Issas slip through the cracks.
“Wegmans helped us out in a pinch,” Issa noted. “From that point on, purchase orders and product support came flooding in and our business was essentially saved, and our staff got back to work. What a great time for a local company to step up. I was nervous about our first review, because there are no in-store demos, which meant that we had to solely rely upon customers picking out our pita chips, but it turned out that Wegmans authorized two new flavors – cinnamon sugar and za’atar thyme. Wegmans said that they like it so much that they are now cross-marketing the cinnamon sugar chips with a cannoli dip!”
I asked Issa why he felt that customers had gravitated to the products so quickly, and he responded, “Our father was adamant that we never put any additives or preservatives in our chips, which prevented us from doing retail sales. My brother and I forced him into retirement [laughing], but we respected his wishes. We came up with a way to cook the chips while keeping them wholesome. Other pita chip makers use electric ovens – we use a flame-lit oven. It’s what makes us different. It also allows us to not use the preservatives and additives.”
Thanks to a “perfect (and completely bizarre) storm,” the Issas are now more focussed and are growing substantially. “It all happened so abruptly… but we had a plan waiting in the wings, thankfully,” said Isaa, who is now pleased with the happenstance pivot.
Today, the chips can also be found at Tops, Whole Foods, Dash’s, and Lexington Co-ops.
Get connected: www.issaschips.com
Lead image, the Issa brothers stand alongside their father, Habib