2019 R&D Teams of the Year: Athens Foods

May 28, 2019
How Athens Foods developed its gluten-free phyllo dough after years of persistent experimentation.

The naysayers said the feat couldn’t be done. But through considerable creativity, can-do confidence and relentless tenacity, the research & development team at Cleveland-based Athens Foods Inc. produced the previously unthinkable: gluten-free phyllo dough.

“To understand the difficulty of the project, you need to know what phyllo is,” explains Athens Foods’ R&D manager Jean Myers, who worked with colleague Chef Nancy Lewis and the production team in the plant on this innovative product.

“Unlike crackers, which are stamped, or bread baked in a pan, phyllo (Greek for leaf) must be stretched and stretched until it is tissue-thin. What makes this possible is the gluten in wheat flour. Without gluten, the dough simply falls apart when stretched, as happened in our initial tests. We needed to find a way to make the dough stretch without it.”

Compounding the R&D team’s challenges, Myers’ and Lewis’ lab work didn’t always translate well in production. “The machinery in the plant is complex, and what it does cannot be replicated in the lab,” Myers notes. “What looks good in the lab can be a flop in the plant.”

After five years of experimentation and trial and error, Myers and Lewis arrived at the ideal formulation approximately a year ago. Athens Foods is now ready to go to market with the gluten-free product.

“To our knowledge, there is no other gluten-free phyllo dough on the market,” Myers says. “As the world’s leading producer of phyllo dough, it was a natural progression that we develop a gluten-free version.”

The proprietary recipe includes “just the right balance of tapioca and rice flours,” Myers shares. “Although containing no gluten, those particular flours did aid in achieving the extensibility we need.”

The gluten-free phyllo doesn’t have the exact same light flakiness of traditional phyllo because it simply cannot stretch quite as thin without gluten, Myers acknowledges. “But it still has a nice crispy crunch,” as she puts it.

On the surface, the R&D program at Athens Foods consists of a “mighty team of two,” according to Myers. “However,” she emphasizes, “we are fortunate at Athens that a culture of ‘all for one and one for all’ is the norm.

"There were many hands involved in bringing this project to fruition. From quality assurance, production and sanitation to our marketing and sales teams, we drew collectively from years of experience. Each played a role in making this feat a success.”

Besides the gluten-free phyllo dough, Athens Foods has developed a line of gluten-free phyllo-wrapped frozen appetizers. Bite-sized and pyramid-shaped, the appetizers come in three introductory flavors: Buffalo Style Chicken, Steak Fiesta (reflecting south-of-the border influences), and Spinach and Cheese (the same flavor profile as the company’s classic spanakopita).

“Our goal with the appetizers was to make products that would be enjoyed by consumers whether or not they are following a gluten-free lifestyle,” Myers notes. “With this in mind we started with flavor profiles that are not only on-trend but also, more importantly, familiar and popular at parties and for anytime snacking — flavors that would be enhanced with our crispy phyllo dough.”

Responding to demand

Athens Foods, which has both foodservice and retail customers, continues to be amazed by the recent surge in demand for gluten-free products. “It is incredible how many requests we have had, especially in the past two years, for gluten-free phyllo dough and appetizers,” Myers says. “At first it was from Greek ladies wanting to create their much-loved Greek comfort foods for family members with gluten sensitivities. But now we are receiving inquiries from grocers and caterers for gluten-free appetizer options.”

This month, Athens Foods will begin marketing its Gluten Free Phyllo Bites to retail consumers. Later in the year, the gluten-free phyllo dough will be available at retailers.

The company is also responding to tremendous commercial interest in gluten-free products in the foodservice sector, including demand for gluten-free phyllo-wrapped appetizers. “There is interest from large foodservice distributors, cruise lines and universities for products for restricted diets and ‘better for you’ offerings,” Myers says.

“Likewise, many caterers are looking for gluten-free options for events that have guests with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. Our packaging (four sealed trays of 25 pieces in a case) allows them to be attentive to the needs of these consumers without having to open a whole case and waste product.”

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