By Leslie Renken
Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.
Aleece’s Pita Chips are made in East Peoria, but the recipe originated somewhere more exotic.
Alice Anthony, the company’s owner, learned to make pita bread growing up in a small Lebanese village named Akabet Hairouna.
“My father grew the wheat, and my grandmother and mother made the bread,” said Anthony during a recent interview at the company’s small East Peoria factory. “I started helping when I was 5 or 6 years old.”
Anthony, 71, emigrated to the United States when she was 18 years old. She and her husband, Charles Anthony, ran the family’s tavern, Anthony’s Tap, in the building which houses the pita chip factory today at 401 Richmond St., East Peoria. Many of the tap’s customers were Caterpillar employees who worked in the factory across the street. When Caterpillar closed that building in the 1990s, business suffered.
Anthony, who lost her husband in 1988, had to find other employment, but she never left the food industry. While working full time for the Department of Transportation, she also ran a wedding planning and catering business where she made, in addition to other things, pita chips and dips for her customers. They were so popular she decided to market them. At 59, Anthony quit her full-time job to focus on the endeavor, and by the time she was 60, her chips were in several local grocery stores.
“We’ve been in the stores for 11 years now,” said Anthony. “When we started I had the baker make 10 pounds of bread for me, and my dad would cut it up with scissors.”
As the business grew, Anthony acquired equipment to automate production — a press to cut the bread into chips, an oven fed with a conveyor belt, devices to help with packaging. Though Aleece’s has been making a modest profit for several years, Anthony continues to reinvest in the business.
Today the business produces up to 720 six-ounce bags of chips a week and 150 containers of cheese dip each month. All five flavors of chips and three flavors of cheese are sold in grocery stores in Peoria, Bloomington, Morton, Springfield and Galesburg. Anthony also sells at the Peoria RiverFront Market and the Junction City farmers market where she offers a wider selection of products, including her all-natural hummus spreads and eight different types of energy bars. Anthony also makes special order items for customers. Visit www.aleeces.com for more information.
Anthony works 8-to-12-hour days and employs family members on a part-time basis to help with production and distribution. With six children, four who live in the area, 16 grandchildren, and siblings, Anthony is never without assistance.
“Even the little ones, they love putting the labels on the packages,” said Anthony. “When we go through the grocery stores, they say, ‘Look Siti (grandmother), those are the labels I put on.’ ”
– In addition to teaching her younger family members about business and hard work, Anthony also enjoys mentoring the other small business owners she meets through the National Organization of Women Business Owners. She tells them that being a business owner has many rewards, but is also quite demanding.
“It’s more difficult running a small business than going to an office job,” said Anthony. Small business owners work long hours and have to manage difficulties that may arise suddenly.
“I tell them, ‘don’t let a small bump in the road stop you from doing what you want,’ ” said Anthony. She has successfully managed several big crises over the years, including one three months ago when the local baker who made the pita bread called to say his oven broke. At first Anthony thought he would fix it quickly, but when that didn’t happen she began to worry.
“The stores are going to be out of my product next week, what are we going to do?” Anthony asked her family. “Then my sister said, ‘lets do it by hand.’ ”
Making pita bread with a rolling pin is labor intensive. Anthony quickly realized mechanical assistance was needed, so she went out and bought a sheeter, a box-shaped device with internal rollers to flatten dough in a couple passes.
After the immediate crisis was addressed Anthony learned the baker wasn’t going to get his oven fixed anytime soon. She looked for another baker to take over the job, but no one could meet her standards — either the bread they made wasn’t the right size, or she didn’t like the recipe. Made with whole grain flours, Aleece’s Pita Chips are all natural. By then, Anthony and her crew had gotten used to making the pitas and were happy with the results. Aleece’s may keep making its own bread permanently.
“I will continue to research about the equipment to see if it’s feasible for us,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I could make them bread.”
At 71, Anthony is thinking about expanding the business.
“I don’t think I’ll ever sit in my rocker because, well, I don’t have one,” said Anthony. “And I enjoy working, being with other people. If you can learn one new thing every day, and then teach someone, it’s worth it.”
Aleece’s Pita Chips
* Hearty Herb Pita Chips
* Sugar & Spice Pita Chips
* Whole Wheat Pita Chips
* White & Perfect Pita Chips
* Hot & Spicy Pita Chips
Aleece’s Energy Bars
* Almond-Honey Wheat Free Power Bar
* Wheat Free Almond-Agave Energy Bar
* Wheat Free Nut Free Sunbutter Granola Bar
* Wheat Free Peanut Butter Granola Bar
* Lemon Chocolate Oat Protein Bar
* Munch Bar
* Whole Grain Power Bar
* Whole Grain Gourmet Bar
Aleece’s Cheese Spread
* Garlic & Herbs
* South of the Borders
* B L T
* Original Garlic & lemon Hummus
* Chocolate Hummus
* Hummus with Beets
* Black Bean Hummus
* Edamame Cilantro Hummus
* Curried Hummus
* Avocado-Cilantro Black Bean Hummus
* Red Lentil Hummus
For more information visit www.aleeces.com