In the last two years, the popularity of Greek foods has increased to the point that they are no longer being imported just by ethnic companies, but by mainstream companies, too, such as Kraft, according to Eric Moscahlaidis, president of Krinos Foods, Long Island City, N.Y., one of the largest importers of Greek foods to the United States.
There is a trend toward convergence, with ethnic foods becoming more and more integrated into retailers' regular sections. It's not uncommon to find stuffed grape leaves on supermarket shelves and four or five kinds of Greek olives.
On the West Coast, Moscahlaidis said, a grated cheese called Mythzithra, similar to Romano and a little less expensive, is doing very well. Krinos sells "thousands" of cases of whole roasted red peppers, and since SN last reported on Greek foods (May 8, 2000), marinated jarred olives, some stuffed with garlic or with orange rind and bay leaves, are coming into their own, along with organic olive oils. A rolled wafer cookie under the Twistie brand name is doing phenomenally well in Demoulas Market Basket stores in New England, according to Moscahlaidis.
The item he calls "the next wave" of Greek grocery items is fruit nectars, such as the Amita brand Krinos will soon start distributing. Amita nectars are produced by the Coca-Cola bottler in Greece, Hellenic Bottling Co., which Moscahlaidis said is the second-largest bottler after Coca-Cola Enterprises. "It is brand new; we are just starting to work with them. We will put some money behind the brand, in a marketing program, and we are going to push it into the mainstream," he told SN.
To consider Greek food as ethnic is passe, said Bonnie Henry, chief executive officer and president, Hellas International, Salem, Mass., another large importer and owner of the Morea brand of olive products, spreads, vinegars and Nectars of the Gods fruit preserves.
"When our company started six years ago, there wasn't much high end, positioned that way, in Greek food. It was mostly ethnic Greek," she said.
"Our products are positioned as specialty items, which means they are targeted toward the specialty gourmet health consumer, not the ethnic market." Some of Hellas' customers are Whole Foods Market, Andronico's, Oakfield Groceries on the West Coast, and Lunds and Bylerly's in the Twin Cities.
"If they can change it a little, it gives people a chance to try it. It can move away from 'ethnic' and become another choice," said Yani Mavridopoulos, another importer of Greek food, who manages Loumidis Foods in Astoria, a section of New York City's borough of Queens and home to a large Greek-American population.
The last wave of Greek immigration to this country was in the 1960s, he said, and since children of that group have gone astray from strictly Greek cuisine, Greek suppliers must cultivate an expanded mainstream market.
Thanks to the usual suspects -- television's cooking shows, travel magazines, crossover from food service, and publicity about the Mediterranean region and diet -- Greek food is growing steadily, but retailers and others say the Greek government should do more to promote it, as the Italian, Spanish and British do through their trade commissions and related organizations.
"It would help us if they did," said Paul Saltzman, grocery manager of A Southern Season, which at 28,000 square feet is one of the largest specialty food retailers in the United States, located in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In the past, Greece did support olive oil, ran TV commercials, created point-of-sale materials and printed brochures for consumers, "but I haven't seen anything like that for years," Moscahlaidis added. He is president of the Greek Food and Wine Institute, which holds tastings, publishes a newsletter and brings in speakers to seminars, but does not provide financial support, coupons or POS materials. The entire mass of Greek food imports to the United States is so small, he said, that U.S. Customs does not track it separately, but lumps it in with "others."
In 2000, the Consul General of Greece, in New York, told SN that imports had increased 40% to 50% in the past decade, with around $100 million worth of food products shipped to the United States annually. More recent figures were unavailable. ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., tracked a steady increase in sales of six kinds of olives imported from Greece, showing a gain of 18% in equalized sales in 2001 over the previous year, and of 11% this year.
"We do Greek promotions, we do displays, and active and passive samples, to call attention to a brand," Saltzman said. Getting ready to do a Spanish promotion, Saltzman is aware that if he advertises certain products and does certain things, the Spanish trade commission will send the store money. "I wish the Greeks would, because I know there is a lot more out there that I would like to see," he said. Some of the products he stocks include olives stuffed with garlic and with apricots, green olives stuffed with sundried tomatoes, and even green olives stuffed with kalamata olives.
Besides the expected olives, olive oils and vinegars and jarred eggplant tapenades, there is a wide range of products like deep, dark coffee, pasta, honey, spreads, fruit preserves and cookies that can go beyond the ethnic and into the gourmet, or even the everyday market.
Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., deals with Greek products the same way it does with other traditional foods from all the countries of Europe and the United States, said Ari Weinzweig, CEO. "They're not a huge area for us but they're consistently a nice, solid piece," he said. In spite of there being many Greek-Americans in the community and because Zingerman's is not a low-end ethnic store, it sells the Greek products mainly to non-Greeks, and sells them regardless of the season or calendar. On the other hand, if the store does cater to the ethnic market, as Titan Food Imports does, it will do a large percentage of its sales around Lent and Easter.
There is a great potential for Greek foods in the supermarket, said Ron Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, New York, because "they make a very high-quality product, and can come in at prices that are a little less than the Italians."
Greek products, while not cheap, can be a reasonable alternative to some of the other Mediterranean countries' products, and might be especially suitable in an area that has consumers who are a little price-sensitive.
One example is that of an extra-virgin Greek olive oil, under Loumidis' Dafni brand, that several years ago retailed at around $15 for a half liter. Trimming some of the frills from the packaging, and with the worldwide reduction in the cost of olive oil, the same product now retails for around $5.
For the NASFT's Summer Fancy Food Show in New York this week, Greek exhibitors have booked space in the Greek pavilion and close to 40 other companies that have Greek products will also exhibit, Tanner said, which is about the same number as in recent years.
Gourmet America, Boston, one of the major importers of Greek foods, was bought by Hormel Foods Corp., the Austin, Minn., maker of Spam, in 1990. Ron Johnson, president of Gourmet America, said his company has supplied mainstream chains with its Peloppenese brand for about 10 years.
"Our parent company, Hormel, liked the line so much and saw the future in Mediterranean foods clearly on the mass market horizon, so Hormel bought the brand and all the existing business in the mid-'90s. This is a broad line that has grown over time," Johnson said.
"All the flavor profiles are friendly, sweet and natural," some toned down from the native dish to appeal to a broader group. The line includes sauces, spreads, glazes, relishes, wild capers and a wild herb marinade, and, in Johnson's view, captures the essence of Mediterranean dining.
"As we continue to develop new items under this Peloppenese brand, we use the term 'Mediterranean' more than Greek," he said.
For Johnson, there are two big differences between ethnic and specialty or ethnic and mainstream. For instance, olives that are brought in by ethnic importers are typically brined in an 8% salt solution, while Peloppenese will desalinate them, adding wine vinegar or glykadi, which is like a balsamic: a dark red, sweet vinegar.
"The ethnic people may soak kalamata olives for a few hours before they use them in the kitchen, but Americans might not know to do that. They might say, 'Those olives are good, but they are so darn salty."'
Labeling is another area that can be used to educate the consumer, Johnson told SN. "We spend a lot of time in our company translating the uses of the product into some short, very quick and easy-to-use ideas," he said. Take pomegranate glaze, for example. People might wonder, "How do you use it?"
"You have 15 or 16 seconds to capture that consumer looking at that jar, before he notices the price, and if the pomegranate glaze says, 'Warm and use as a basting for barbecue, or use at the table for dipping swordfish chunks,' and if the price point is friendly, say $3.99 or $4.99, he puts it in the basket and moves on. That's the way to market to Americans."
In New York, John Catsimatidis, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Gristede's, said he plans to put a quote from his doctor on a sign above the olive oil section -- "Ten olives a day keep the cardiologist away" -- because of the health benefits of monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.
Catsimatidis does not consider Greek food as a category, so he puts all the olives together and all the olive oils together, but with labels on the shelf to tell shoppers which country the oil comes from.
Catsimatidis said, "[In the last year or two], we have brought 20 containers of [29-ounce-size canned] peaches, at a reasonable price, and containers of Greek pasta, dry; it sold very well at three packages for $2."
The peaches and pasta are about it for commodity products, according to Mavridopoulos, whose company supplies Gristede's. "Everybody is looking for a combination of good product and very aggressive pricing, in the neighborhood of a dollar," he said.
Fire-roasted peppers is another story, more of a specialty product, as are the canned appetizers: grape leaves, peas in oil, okra, eggplant paste and several more.
Kontos Foods, Paterson, N.J., makes 19 varieties of packaged flatbreads including a kalamata olive bread that was sampled at all ShopRite stores recently, to great interest, according to Steven Kontos, vice president.
Bonnie Henry notes that Shaw's carries Hellas brands not in its World Market area but in its Special Selections area with the other high-end specialty food. "To me, that says Greece can stand on its own," Henry said.