Small Business: Alamir Bakery, Wellington’s 27-year-old Lebanese food manufacturer

Ali Dia, managing director of family-run Alamir Bakery, talks abouthelping his parents as a child, taking over the business with his brothers, and recovering from Covid-19 disruption.

What does your business do?

Alamir Bakery produces staple Lebanese foods for distribution to supermarkets, other stores and the food service industry across New Zealand. It’s a family-run business that started in 1993, making foods such as pita bread, tahini, tahini sauce, hummus and falafel. We have more than 100 restaurants that use our products.

What was the motivation for starting it?

My Mum started catering, and randomly got a contract for catering for the Iranian embassy in Wellington; they really liked the hummus, and all sorts of the people would come over and try the hummus. One of the people who tried the hummus – who used to be the owner of Mexicano Corn Chips – was Mike Moore, and he thought maybe he could market the hummus through the company, so he helped my Dad get started while Mum made the hummus.

Mike helped Dad get the business started and he began selling the hummus to local supermarkets and it slowly grew into other products and ready-made packs of food. As we grew we started making pita bread and also opened a little cafe, which we ran for 12 years. Dad retired about six years ago, which is when me and my three brothers took over, and since then we have grown like crazy.

How big is the team?

Including me and my brothers, we have a team of 28 staff. We have two of our own factories in Wellington, one where we produce the pita bread and the other where we produce our falafel bites, hummus and tahini.

When did you first start helping your parents out with the business?

We were helping out and working ever since I can remember, we’d come home from school and we’d head out the back, put a hair net and gloves on and all the rest and start loading containers and pitching in. We were a heavily family run business in the early days. My Dad built a commercial kitchen out of the back of our house and a storage unit attached to it with all of the containers and we would do everything from the back of the house.

How do you share operational responsibilities between the four of you?

It’s a hard one – I’m sort of across every department from maintenance on machinery to sales and organising staff, but we all pitch in when we can. We’ve all worked in every role, which makes it a bit easier as well. My younger brother looks after all of the deliveries, oldest brother helps out in the kitchen and oversees production and the one just above me is more involved in the accounts side of things and keeps on track with that. Mum is sort of everywhere and whenever we introduce new recipes they always come back to her.

What’s it like running a business with family – are there any hidden benefits?

We have our ups and downs that’s for sure, but I think it is good because we all have different views and often decisions aren’t rushed in because not one person is making a decision. We all get along well and I’ve just recently moved out of the family home with my wife, and we have a son now, but the rest of the family all live together.

How has Covid-19 changed your business and how have you adapted to a changed market?

Covid-19 and the lockdown was rough. At some point we dropped down to 60 per cent of production and like everybody took a hit. We had to make two staff members redundant, it wasn’t what we wanted but we wouldn’t have been able to survive otherwise. We’re on our way to get back on track, but this is definitely the worst January we’ve had in a long time.

Sales of certain products have picked up again, some are still down 40 per cent. We’re finding new avenues to grow and keep ourselves moving ahead. We’ve recently done some dealings with New Caledonia – we began exporting our hummus and falafel bits there, which is a first for us for overseas export, and we’re also finding partners such asHello Fresh and will likely be helping out with the Government’s school lunch programme.

What are you focused on this year?

I’ve been going out to more cafes and restaurants to try and find more clients that way and also dealing with a lot more online stores and vegan stores. Those are really good avenues for us to spread our food. We’re going to start doing more tastings in stores, and have a number of new products coming out this year including frozen falafel, beetroot pita chips and a beetroot hummus.

We’ve grown very quickly over the last five years so we’re also looking to outsource a bit of help and move the two manufacturing hubs into one facility. We’re actively looking for a new bigger site where we can house all our production equipment, storage and vehicles.

What are the long-term plans for Alamir Bakery?

We’d like to see a lot more of our products in stores across New Zealand. There’s a lot of stores that only take two or three products whereas we have 25 available; we’d like to see more natural foods in the supermarkets with shorter shelf-life products.

What advice do you give to others who want to start their own business?

Back your product. If you have a good product then get out there, market it and sell it.

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