Shortly before he turned 14, Pierre Chammas emigrated from Lebanon to the U.S. with his family. “We made Michigan our home,” said the owner of Steve’s Mediterranean Chef, known for their popular products such as hummus, tabouli, garlic sauce, grape leaves, and spinach and feta pie. “I’ve been here almost my entire life, but I never thought I’d be in this business.”
Inspired by a visit to a childhood friend on the east coast who showed him how well Middle Eastern food had done in that market, Chammas switched gears and founded the Basha hummus brand. “There were more barriers back then to make food compared to now and you had to convince people to put it on the shelves and buy from us,” he said.
The products would come to be sold in 23 states, but success came with a downside.
“My wife and I have five children and they were pretty young at the time,” said Chammas, who lives in Bloomfield Hills. “Work was consuming all of my time and I wasn’t spending enough time with my family.”
So, in 2006, he sold the company to Garden Fresh Gourmet, assisting with the transition for two years. This allowed him to spend a lot more time with his family and pursue other career paths – but he missed the food business. So, when a friend asked him to come back as a consultant, “It was like a call from heaven,” he said.
“I loved being back in the business,” said Chammas. When he learned that Steve’s Backroom was for sale a few years later, he bought the east side staple. “What a revival it was for me to get back into this business with a company that has been around for so long,” he added.
Now known as Steve’s Mediterranean Chef, the company rebranded and relocated to a new state-of-the-art facility in Madison Heights, going from around $600,000 in sales to projecting around $7 million this year. They also expanded the original customer base from around 40 stores to a little over 250 in Michigan.
While they do rely on distributors for a few further locations, like Lansing and Mackinac Island, they mainly practice direct store delivery (DSD). “We use our trucks to get the products to the stores and we do everything here the way we do it at home, just 10 times larger in buckets and bowls,” Chammas explained.
“When I did this my second time around, the gratification had to be more than money and profit,” he explained. “Four out of five of my kids are in the business with me, which is a huge plus. We all appreciate what it means to have a business with family.” The only one who doesn’t work there will head to college in the fall.
Chammas appreciates the input and the unique perspectives that come from his kids, and they all appreciate the other workers there who were earning a living wage even before COVID. “We focus a lot more on people and handmade products, with less automation. We still mix everything in small batches,” he said.
“That is a big part of our growth. If we have a downfall, it’s that we don’t have the people we need to meet demand. We could still use at least 10 more employees.”
Chammas feels grateful to get the food from his heritage into the market and to work alongside his kids.
“I have the best of both worlds,” he said. “I got back into doing what I love with the people I love, with my family.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Laurie Tennent