Located just a few hundred feet away from The Olive Cafe restaurant in south Kansas City is an unassuming, medium-sized warehouse — the Olive Cafe’s bakery. Filled with a number of strange machines, the bakery serves a singular purpose: making pita bread.
Salah Mansi is the owner of the Olive Cafe and has been overseeing the daily operations of the bakery since its opening in 2003.
“I do this for 15 years,” Mansi said. “It’s hard work, it’s not easy work.”
Beginning at 5 a.m., Mansi and a team of six people help bake five to six thousand pieces of fresh pita bread every day. Over the course of five hours, batches of pita dough are mixed, shaped, and baked into their flat and round final forms. While making each batch of bread requires the work of several machines and humans and takes about three hours to make from start to finish, the basic ingredients err on the simple side: high-gluten flour, yeast, water, salt and sugar.
“It’s the good flour, the best flour we use,” Mansi said.
Baking the pita bread is arguably the most important step in the process — it requires a special, nontraditional oven that can bake the pita quickly and at high heat. A conveyor belt transports the pale circles of dough into the oven for only 55 seconds and then pops out pieces of inflated pita bread on the other side. And because the dough must be baked at a temperature rising just above 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the room can often feel like a sauna.
“Then you have to give it about 30 minutes to get cold,” Mansi said, once the pita bread is baked. “And after (it) gets cold we package it, we put it in the bags and (it’ll) be ready to eat.”
Once the pita bread is packaged, it doesn’t just go to the Olive Cafe’s store and restaurant. Mansi and his son, who was working the oven and has helped with the baking process since he was a kid, also deliver batches of pita bread to other Middle Eastern restaurants around the Kansas City area.
“That’s why I have to finish early for delivery,” Mansi said. “If you go to City Market, you’ll find it in City Market.”
Mansi first learned the art of making pita bread 15 years ago when he opened the Olive Cafe. In the beginning, perfecting the recipe involved a lot of trial and error. Mansi said he first went to Chicago to learn how to make pita bread from local bakers. Next, he traveled to California and received more training from bakery company Dawn Foods.
For Mansi, who grew up in Jerusalem and moved to the U.S. 35 years ago, pita bread is a staple in his diet.
“Mediterranean people, overseas people, we eat pita bread every day,” he said. “It’s the number one bread we have overseas.”
At 11 a.m., just as the Olive Cafe’s lunch buffet is about to open, the bakery oven is turned off and the bags of pita bread are loaded into vans for delivery. Mansi is ready to head out the door, deliver the pita bread around town, and do it all again tomorrow.
“This is my job,” he said. “I love my job.”
Celisa Calacal is an intern at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at @celisa_mia.