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2323 Pratt Blvd. | Elk Grove Village, Il. 60007 | www.littleladyfoods.com
Little Lady Foods

You will never see a "Little Lady Pizza" in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. But no matter what the brand name happens to be on your favorite frozen pizza, there's a good chance it was actually produced by this Elk Grove Village bakery/manufacturing company.

Little Lady Foods, with two production facilities in Elk Grove Village and one in Gurnee, specializes in making premium and private-label frozen pizzas, gourmet sandwiches, paninis, wraps, breakfast items, and desserts for some of the largest and best-known food companies, foodservice outlets, and major retailers in the world. Some of the many services it provides for its customers include recipe creation, manufacturing, packaging, marketing, merchandizing, modification, and logistics. Approximately 65 percent of the products Little Lady Foods makes are destined for the freezers of supermarkets all over the nation as branded or private-label products, while the remainder of its output goes to more than 20,000 restaurants.

"We're all about customization," says John Geocaris, co-CEO and chairman of the company. "Each of our customers has different ideas and different requirements for the kind of products they would like to put out under their brand name. We'll sit down with them and find out what kind of ingredients they want in their product, what kind of equipment they want used to bake it, how they want it packaged, how they want it shipped. Whatever it is they want, we'll find a way to do it for them."

This tradition of accommodating a customer's foodservice needs runs deep in the family's history. John Geocaris and his brother Dan, who currently manage Little Lady Foods as joint CEOs, are third-generation food business entrepreneurs whose grandfather and father owned several pizza restaurants in Chicago. In 1984 their father, Angelo, bought Little Lady Foods, a small manufacturer owned by the Esposito family in the Wrigleyville neighborhood that had been producing frozen pizzas for small grocery chains since 1961, with the idea of producing his own brand of hand-made restaurant-quality pizzas.

The business quickly outgrew its Chicago facility and relocated to 2323 Pratt Boulevard in Elk Grove Village in 1988. By 1990 the Geocaris family had sold their brand, Bravissimo, to a marketing company and was producing it for them. They decided to re-focus the business entirely on customized product development and production. Little Lady Foods won accounts from major food companies throughout the 1990s.

"Over half of our customers have been with us for ten or more years," says Geocaris. "During that time, we've worked on many different development projects with our customers and have grown along with them."

As of 2012, the company had transformed from a small business of five employees with yearly sales of $100,000 to a corporation of three production facilities with sales of $200 million a year. It employs about 800 workers and churns out more than five million pizzas and three million sandwiches a week.

There can be many reasons why a food company will choose to contract out the production of its food products, Geocaris explains. Some of Little Lady Foods' customers, such as a food company founded by a famous actor which donates all of its after-tax proceeds to charity, act as marketing companies for their brands and don't manufacture any of their products. With other customers, certain products may not fit into their manufacturing environment or, in the case of restaurants, are too time-consuming to be made on-site.

"Each customer has different needs, but we work with them to provide a total supply chain solution," says Geocaris. "For example, some customers have their own recipes or formulas they want us to follow and only want us to figure out how to mass-produce it. Close to three-quarters of the time, however, they will want us to develop everything from scratch for them." Since Little Lady Foods maintains a fully-staffed culinary center for recipe creation, testing, and development, Geocaris says this poses no problems.

The culinary center is located in a 55,000-square-foot facility on Pratt Avenue in Elk Grove Village, along with two of its pizza production lines. Two other pizza production lines are located in another nearby 35,000-square-foot facility. The company's Gurnee plant devotes two of its four lines to hand-held frozen sandwiches, paninis, and flatbreads, with pizzas running on the remaining two lines. In 2011, the company leased 20,000 square feet of office space across the street from the Elk Grove production facilities in order to move most of its employees into a central location. This released valuable room needed to keep up with Little Lady Foods' ever-growing production needs.

The company stays on top of all of the changing trends in the food industry in order to provide whatever their customers might want, whether it's organic or low-carbohydrate ingredients, multigrain or flavored crusts, or smaller snack sizes. Little Lady Foods also offers its customers a plethora of variety in both its ingredients and its baking and production methods.

Pizza toppings can run the gamut from traditional items such as tomato sauce, pepperoni, sausage, and onions to more unconventional ingredients like Alfredo sauce, Canadian bacon, Jamaican jerk chicken, pineapple, avocado, or fire-roasted mixed vegetables. As for baking methods, Little Lady Foods prides itself on using both conventional wire mesh conveyorized ovens and custom stone-fired brick ovens. The brick ovens set Little Lady Foods apart from most other frozen pizza manufacturers and give pizza crusts a unique texture that is crispier on the bottom and chewier on the top.

The company can also supply a variety of options in dough handling and mixing such as sheeting or dough pressing, and packaging methods depending on the customer's needs, such as shrink wrappers or flow wrappers.

Much of the company's equipment consists of mobile stations on wheels, which can be swapped out depending on which product is being run on a particular line.

"High-end pizzas might have high-quality toppings like fire-roasted mixed vegetables that are put on by hand, while the sauce is deposited by a machine," says Geocaris. "After the sauce is applied, we can then wheel in a manual station for the hand-applied toppings. If the next product being run uses toppings that are put on automatically, we can wheel out the manual station and slip in automated meat or vegetable topping machines, which slice and apply the toppings in predetermined patterns, according to the customer's requirements."

All products at Little Lady Foods are frozen in state-of-the-art, 40-foot-long nitrogen tunnels, which freeze food at sub-zero temperatures in only two minutes to ensure that the product tastes as fresh as possible.

The company also follows stringent quality and safety standards. All three of Little Lady Foods' production facilities are inspected by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and all three have attained the highest level, Level 3, of the Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 certification, which means they comply with all international and domestic food safety regulations. This includes screening and metal detection of all products for foreign materials, as well as proper handling and preparation of raw ingredients to prevent pathogen-related illnesses. The plants are also audited by the American Institute of Baking (AIB) and have received its highest rating of "Superior" every year since 1995.

"Since we have so many national customers, it's important that they trust us to produce the highest-quality products," says Geocaris. "We're the only pizza manufacturer we know of that has a Level 3 SQF rating in all of its facilities, and we work hard to maintain that."

Little Lady Foods continues to experiment with innovative new ideas and recipes to take frozen food beyond its usual boundaries. It produces a premium line of gourmet Mexican pizzas from famous chef Rick Bayless and plans to partner with another prestigious chef soon. It will also help some of its customers expand their breakfast sandwich lines, and is even working on frozen dessert pizzas with fruit and other sweet ingredients for other clients.

"Like I said, we're all about customization," Geocaris says. "We'll do whatever it takes to help our customers' brands be everything they want them to be."

A Product of Matthew D. Walker Publishing, LLC © 2012