Dimitris Politopoulos and his team heard their mobile phones ringing as soon as they turned them back on after landing in New York City for the Sunday start of the Summer Fancy Food Show, with calls of concern about the growing economic turmoil back home. The CEO of 776 Deluxe Foods, a producer of olives, oils and honey spreads, joined executives from a long list of other Greek food companies that filled more than three aisles of the trade show’s floor, making connections with the distributors and retailers with the power to help them start or expand their exporting efforts in the U.S.
Many of the companies at the Summer Fancy Food Show already export to the U.S., as well as Europe, Canada and Australia, and those international deals grow more critical as the economic turmoil at home continues. On Tuesday, Greece officially defaulted on a $1.7 billion loan payment to the International Monetary Fund, and on Sunday the citizens will vote on a referendum on whether to remain part of the Eurozone.
As part of the Eurozone, many Greek food companies have benefited from EU programs that have helped expand their sales worldwide, said Katerina Papaioannou, export manager for Athens-based Olix Oil International. The company exports its oils and olives to 12 countries, including the U.S. under the brand Aphea, named for the Ancient Greek goddess of agriculture. Olix has invested about $20 million in new processing facilities, she said.
“I think we are going to stay in Europe.”
Exporting and the entrepreneurial spirit of Greece’s younger generation will be key to reviving the country’s economy, said 776 CEO Politopoulos.
“It used to be that the public sector was big, it was that way for several decades. Now we’re getting back to our traditional roots of production and trade,” he said.
Politopoulos’s 776 Deluxe Foods derived its name from 776 BC, the year of the first Olympic games in the Delphi region of Greece that produces the olives and other ingredients that go into the company’s products. The venture launched about 18 months ago, and the main focus now is seeking export deals, Politopoulos said.
Greek executives at the show were largely optimistic that things will work out, but there were also real concerns about instilling and retaining the confidence of their customers and prospective customers if Greece goes back to the drachma.
Another Greek company, Kyknos, celebrated 100 years of operation this year, selling tomato products in cans and BPA-free paper packaging in 20 countries. The company works with local growers, providing them with the tomato seeds and making sure the non-GMO fruit moves from field to factory in three hours, said Exports Consultant Eric Fischer.
“Tomatoes are a 60-day crop, and the season starts in about two weeks time,” Fischer said. The company employs 45 regular staff and adds 300 seasonal employees who work round the clock to turn out 200 metric tons of tomatoes a day during the two-month period.
Many of the seasonal staffers return year after year, he said, and this year will be no different. “We’re very loyal to our employees and they are loyal to us. Greece has been facing a crisis, but we never lowered wages.”
Stylis Olive Producers Cooperative includes 1,600 small farmers in Central Greece growing for the brand’s olives stuffed with different flavors including orange, lemon and garlic. A few booths down, Arosis CEO Trifon Fotiadis displayed his company’s organic rice, dried beans and Greek Mama Cooks Best brand prepared products. “We work with local farmers who know the business from their grandparents,” he said.
“Our country is full of problems, but we’re optimistic,” he said. “There should be a Greek shelf in every supermarket in the U.S. Americans are a very open people, they want to try things from all over.”
Restaurateur and cookbook writer Maria Loi — she wrote the official cookbook of the 2004 Athens Olympics — was on hand, acting as ambassador from the Hellenic Chef’s Association. Loi grew up on a farm outside Nafpaktos in Western Greece. She started cooking at age 7, cooked for the family and grew up to be a lobbyist. Her passion for feeding people eventually brought her back to the culinary world and she now operates a restaurant in Greece as well as Loi Estiatorio in New York City.
The economic situation at home won’t be solved in a day, she said.
“As a Greek, I blame myself. I haven’t done enough for my country. If every one of us exported, we would show to the world we have the pillars of the Mediterranean diet, the Greek diet.”
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