St. Louis' first-ever pita bakery has its roots in the civil war that's divided Syria.
The family that founded Cham Bakery last summer came here after fleeing that war-torn country, where its patriarch, Faiz Alderea, had been a baker in Damascus. Son Awss, the first to immigrate, knew just one person in the U.S., and he happened to be married to a woman from St. Louis.
So why not move to St. Louis, they thought? And why not open a bakery here?
"We studied the market," says Alaa Alderie, who at 31 is Faiz's youngest son. "We saw there was potential not only with the Arabic community, but with the American one."
The family ordered a giant industrial baking machine, and by April, it had arrived from Lebanon. They set up shop in a bare-bones warehouse in an industrial part of Manchester Road on St. Louis' western edge. Test runs complete, they started approaching various businesses in June. They took their name from the Syrian word for jasmine and their slogan — "take and eat" — from the Bible.
Their first customer was Ranoush, the Middle-Eastern restaurant with locations on the Delmar Loop in University City and in Kirkwood. Other orders soon followed: Local Harvest, the Vine, Jay's International Market, a host of Bosnian and gyro places, even Dierberg's.
"A lot of people said, 'We've been waiting 15 years to have something like this in St. Louis,'" says Awss Aldrea. At 33, he's the middle brother and was also a founder of Layla's Lebanese restaurant, although he's no longer involved with its operations. The whole family is now focused on the bakery.
(And yes, father Faiz and his two sons each have a different spelling on their last name. Their mother, Samar, has a fourth. Immigration officials translating their names from the Arabic somehow came up with four different spellings. Oldest brother Anas, who is in Thailand waiting for permission to the come to the U.S., shares his name's spelling with his father.)
Baking starts at Cham promptly at 5am, and by 7, the air is moist enough to fog up your glasses and make the room hot. The family works steadily, without much conversation. Each member has a job to do, and they focus on that.
The process begins with flour being sifted, then poured into a giant mixer. Cham bread has just five ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water.
Those ingredients have settled into a huge lump of pale dough by the time the bread is ready for baking. Alaa loads it into the baking machine's opening portal, adding more as the giant blades at the bottom work their magic.
From there, the machine cuts the dough into floury cheeseburger-sized patties and sends them on their way. The proofer helps the dough relax, a process that takes about 20 minutes; the flattener stretches it out before it's sent to a second proofer. Faiz works back in a corner, watching the bread as it's flattened and gets ready to the enter the 500-degree oven.
It's in the oven for just a few seconds, but it comes out transformed: puffed up and golden, taking a turn around the room on the conveyor belt as it cools and gently deflates. At the end of the line, Alaa's girlfriend Laura Shields, mother Samar, brother Awss and a part-time college student who assists with packaging efficiently stack the pockets into plastic bags.
From the time the dough enters the machine until it's ready for bagging takes about 25 minutes. After the day's packaging concludes, the family also handles delivery.
Currently, Cham produces about 1,000 loaves each day, but the bakery has the capacity for more. "Our target is to be at 2,500 to 3,000 in the next year," says Alaa. "This machine, we got it to make huge quantities. It can make 5,000 in an hour."
For all the high-tech aspects, Cham does some things manually because they believe it makes a difference. They are proud that the dough has no additives, and that they sift the flour by hand, as well as doing all that packaging — it takes longer, but allows for quality control. Irregularly shaped loaves, as well as any extras that aren't taken by clients, go to Operation Food Search to feed the hungry.
The bags that go to American groceries get six pitas; ones intended for international clients get eight. That's no slight on American appetites; that's just a fact of pita consumption.
"We have it mornings, lunches, dinners," Alaa says, laughing. "We eat a lot of pita."
Cham Bakery, 6818 Manchester Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. 314.479.5863, chambakery.com
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