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  • The Power of Bread: Armenian Family Values at Toufayan Bakeries

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    In Armenia and Armenian households around the world, bread comes first. Often the first food placed on a table, it is also the first topic at hand upon entering the household of an Armenian grandmother. She will insist on feeding you hatz, the Armenian word for bread, an all-encompassing term synonymous with food.

    In markets throughout the Armenian Diaspora, bread is a beacon of community around which locals gather to purchase their weekly supply. The mental shopping lists of cheese, butter, yogurt, meat, and other foods are contingent on the bread of choice, often surrounded by conversations positioned by the racks of fresh bread, or across dairy and meat counters. Neighbors, relatives, and strangers alike will partake. Recipes, memories, and unwarranted advice are exchanged.

    Such is the reality in the colorful Armenian aisles of America. The same applies in Armenia, with added intricate gatherings around the tonir (oven) where many women carry on the art of making lavash, a traditional Armenian flatbread, as well as the Middle Eastern pita.

    According to Armenian American Karen Toufayan, these traditions and familiar communal life around bread, particularly pita, is what the Toufayan Bakeries family carried abroad from Egypt, where they resettled after fleeing the Ottoman Empire. The family opened a bakery there in 1926, but, following a changing political climate in the country, the Toufayans immigrated to the United States in the 1960s.

    Toufayan Bakeries
    Toufayan Bakeries founder Haroutoun Toufayan with his wife Siranoush in the factory in Ridgefield, New Jersey, 1975.
    Photo courtesy of Toufayan Bakeries

    “My grandfather and my father [Harry Toufayan] both worked, eventually saved up enough money to get a building in New Jersey, and re-established Toufayan Bakeries here in the United States fifty years ago,” explained Karen, the eldest child of three in the tight-knit Toufayan family. “They started baking bread similar to how they did it in Egypt, baking it in the back with a small storefront and would make deliveries at night to various restaurants and retail shops.”

    Initially serving local Armenian and other families, the Toufayans’ pita was the first to hit local supermarkets in the United States. Thanks to Harry Toufayan’s genius, pita bread found a home nestled among American products. Over the years, the company’s pita operations have expanded. Though pita bread was and remains one of Toufayan Bakeries’ main products, their offering now reaches a wider audience with on-trend gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO, kosher, low-carb, and organic options, as well as new lavash, pita chip, naan, and bagel products.

    In addition to the corporate headquarters and pita plant in Ridgefield, New Jersey, the Toufayan Bakeries now have two manufacturing facilities in Plant City and Orlando, Florida. The company is currently run by Harry Toufayan’s three children: Karen, Kristine, and Greg. Now in his mid-seventies, Harry remains actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. This October, Toufayan Bakeries will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.

    The diversity of the offerings and the three-generational operation of this family-run business reflect the integral characteristics and values of immigrant families, particularly those of the Armenian diaspora.

    “Hard work, determination, my father’s love for his family really motivated him throughout these last fifty years to be successful in the United States,” Karen said.

    Toufayan Bakeries
    The Toufayan family outside the bakery in Ridgefield, New Jersey, 2017
    Photo courtesy of Toufayan Bakeries

    The family would always feast together. Karen recalls times when her father would bring home pita on Saturday afternoons and transform it into “the best garlic bread on the face of the Earth,” a staple of the family’s Sunday feasts. The Toufayans also maintain a strong connection to Armenian culture and identity.

    “All of the Toufayan grandchildren—the fourth generation—are very connected to their Armenian traditions and identity,” Karen emphasized. “They all read, write, and speak fluent Armenian and are involved in a variety of Armenian summer camps.”

    In addition to underscoring a strong immigrant work ethic necessary to run one of the largest family-owned enterprises in the country, Toufayan Bakeries is also an exemplar of corporate social responsibility. The family is actively involved in local Armenian communities and churches in the United States. Eleven years ago, during one of their visits to Armenia, Harry and his wife Suzanne were driven to build and support a youth center in Etchmiadzin. The Toufayans continue to offer additional aid, building and reinforcing bridges with their ancestral homeland.

    Toufayan philanthropy is not limited to the Armenian circle. Through donations and marathon fundraising, the family has helped raise funds and awareness for the National MS Society, American Red Cross, Alzheimer’s New Jersey, CYCLE, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Emma’s Torch, which provides “top-notch culinary training to refugees.” They have also been very responsive to natural disasters. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Toufayan Bakeries sent hundreds of bagels to first responders. Through their hard work and generosity, the Toufayans are representative of immigrant families creating home abroad and building bridges across cultures with bread, the product of their collective love and labor.

    Just last week at the Folklife Festival, cultural bridges were built with bread on the National Mall. In fact, the first food demonstration on the very first day was about bread—taking place in the Hatsatoun, Armenian for “bread house.” Catalan baker Àngel Zamora and Syrian Armenian chef Andranig Kilislyan shared their recipes for coca de recapate and lahmajoun, respectively.

    Toufayan Bakeries
    Making lavash in the tonir at the Folklife Festival’s Hazarashen.
    Photo by John Young, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    But the bread making did not stop there. At the center of the Armenia program stands a tonir built into a structure known as the Hazarashen. Here, under the blazing sun, guests can watch professional lavash makers from Armenia prepare the traditional bread from scratch every day. Bread truly is the beginning of everything.

    Join us for the last day of the Festival and share your own stories at Armenia’s Food Memories tent. Visitors will have a chance to record their memories and have them archived at the Smithsonian’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.

    Armine Kalbakian is an intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, working on the Armenia program. She is a rising junior at Cornell University studying anthropology, archaeology, and business. As an Armenian growing up in Los Angeles, she is interested in the development of diaspora communities around the world.

    Toufayan Bakeries is a sponsor of the Hazarashen venue at the Folklife Festival’s Armenia: Creating Home program.

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