Specialty Food And Agriculture Startups Are Ripening In Greece

Originally published on August 19, 2014 7:38 pm

Most mornings, Sotiris Lymperopoulos walks the craggy shoreline of the western Peloponnese, foraging for salty wild greens.

In his straw hat and shorts, snipping wild chicory, garlic and sea asparagus with a kitchen knife, he hardly looks like a poster boy for Greece's nascent startup culture. But the 35-year-old Athenian, who trained as an economist, found a viable niche in the country's post-crisis economy.

"For years, few people appreciated how valuable our own products are," he says, cutting away a thick-leaved green called kritamos and placing it in a plastic bag. "I want to change that."

Lymperopoulos grew up spending summers in his father's ancestral home of Raches, a pinprick village encircled by olive trees. He saw that the produce everyone ate here — the sea greens, the aromatic oranges and lemons, the wild truffles — were far tastier than the fare at the fanciest restaurants in Athens.

"And I thought, this is irrational," he says. "So, I thought, why don't I take this food that is great and never goes to Athens and sell it to people who want to pay something more for their food?"

So he left Athens — and a good job in logistics — just before the crisis, and relocated to Raches. He connected with chefs in fine restaurants in Athens and started selling them wild sea greens.

Soon, he was getting flooded with orders for greens, then cultivated produce like carrots, beans and watermelons. He called the service Radiki, which means chicory in Greek.

A Rise In Startups

The high demand for the service didn't surprise Haris Makryniotis, managing director of Endeavor Greece, which supports startups in the country. The number of startups in Greece has gone up ninefold since 2010, data from Endeavor Greece shows.

The most touted have been tech startups like TaxiBeat, which produces a smartphone application to hail and rate taxi drivers. But Makryniotis says many more sustainable jobs could come in specialty agriculture.

"It's a sector that's ripe for job creation," he says.

For years, Makryniotis says, Greek food products failed to find good homes because of an uncompetitive and stagnant agriculture sector that relied on badly designed European Union subsidies.

"Part of the [subsidy] money was supposed to go to modernization of techniques, new equipment, new ways of cultivating the land," Makryniotis says. "Instead of making good use of this money, most of the money was wasted either on personal needs or consumption of farmers themselves."

Many Greek farmers planted just a few crops that were subsidized.

"If olive oil was subsidized," he says, "we just planted olive trees everywhere. And then we cut them out."

An Innovative Approach

A few innovative farmers who ignored this mentality cultivated a variety of high-quality products that sold well in local markets. Lymperopoulos discovered one of those farmers, Ilias Smirlis, after trying one of Smirlis' carrots at a farmers market in Kalamata.

"My parents used to cultivate two types of greens on our farm," says Smirlis, as he waves to two women in straw hats harvesting red beans. "Now we cultivate 40 kinds of vegetables and fruits."

Before Smirlis met Lymperopoulos, he only sold his products in local markets in Messinia, a prefecture in the western Peloponnese. Now he also sells them to top-shelf restaurants in Athens.

"The demand for good and high-quality products will always exist," Smirlis says. "The challenge is to find the market for them."

If that challenge is met, Makryniotis of Endeavor Greece says at least 300,000 new jobs could be created at a time when the country's gross domestic product has shrunk by 25 percent in four years and unemployment is still at more than 27 percent — the highest in the eurozone.

But many of those new jobs won't be in big cities, which means many citified Greeks will have to move to smaller towns and rural areas. That would reverse a longtime trend of rural-to-urban migration that defined Greece's shift to a postwar service economy.

Only a handful of people have made the move, largely because of a lack of infrastructure, such as schools and housing, as well as amenities, says Alkmini Georgiadi, Lymperopoulos' wife. She left a high-powered job as a lawyer in Thessaloniki and now teaches yoga and helps her husband with Radiki in Raches.

"There is this attitude that there are no jobs in rural areas, but we are trying to show [people] that you can find a way to work," Georgiadi says. "People with knowledge and an appetite for work should bring their skills to areas thirsting for change."

Lymperopoulos says Radiki is expanding its work outside of Greece: He now supplies produce from the Peloponnese to restaurants in Paris and London, and is also partnering with a Greek gourmet food company to sell sea greens to the U.S.

"In Greece, we have the best products, but we don't have a strategy," he says. So like many entrepreneurs in post-austerity Greece, he's decided to write his own.

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The Greek economy appears to be slowly emerging from six years of recession, but unemployment remains stubbornly high. Many Greeks are trying to create their own jobs by forming startups. There are nine times more Greek startups now than there were in 2010. And one promising area is agricultural innovation. Reporter Joanna Kakissis visited one young entrepreneur in southern Greece who is trying to do just that.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Most mornings Sotiris Lymperopoulos forges for wild greens along the craggy coastline of the western Peloponnese. Today he's harvesting a plant with thick leaves called kritamos.

So this particular green, what's it used in?

SOTIRIS LYMPEROPOULOS: We mainly use in salads.

KAKISSIS: What does it taste like?

LYMPEROPOULOS: It tastes like (unintelligible). Taste it and see what tastes like.

KAKISSIS: It's very salty and a little bitter, but very, very fresh. I like it.

In his shorts and straw hat, Lymperopoulos hardly looks like a poster boy for Greece's startup culture, but the 35-year-old economist saw opportunity in the fields of the Peloponnese, where he spent summer vacations at his father's ancestral village, Raches.

LYMPEROPOULOS: People here, the food that they're eating, it's much better than the food that the very rich people in Athens eat. And I was thinking that this is irrational. So, I thought, why I don't take this food that is great and never goes to Athens and sell it to people who want to pay something more for their food?

KAKISSIS: So four years ago, Lymperopoulos left a job in logistics in Athens to move to Raches. He opened a food service called Radiki, which means chicory in Greek. He became a kind of food broker - finding the region's best wild greens, truffles and cultivated produce.

LYMPEROPOULOS: I start with nothing. I had only a bag and a knife.

KAKISSIS: He started selling sea greens to fancy restaurants in Athens. Soon, he was flooded with orders for high-quality produce from the region. So he partnered with local farmers like Ilias Smirlis, who runs a small family farm outside Kalamata.

(Foreign language spoken.)

KAKISSIS: Smirlis explains that his parents cultivated just two types of greens for half a century. He now grows 40 kinds of fruits and vegetables. That variety helped him avoid a deathtrap for Greek farmers, many of whom planted only a few crops based on European Union subsidies. But Smirlis says he never sold his produce outside the western Peloponnese until he met Lymperopoulos.

(Speaking Greek.)

KAKISSIS: The demand for excellent products will always be there, he says, but you have to find the market to sell them.

The specialty food sector desperately needs entrepreneurs who can do just that, but few urbanized Greeks want to move to rural areas where there's still a shortage of housing, infrastructure and amenities. But Lymperopoulos says he's happy he relocated to Raches despite the challenges.

LYMPEROPOULOS: In Greece, we don't have a strategy. OK. We have the best product, but we don't have a strategy. There are other problems that the people - they don't get help. In Greece, you do something very, very good and nobody helps you.

KAKISSIS: So like many entrepreneurs in post-austerity Greece, he's got to help himself, and so far he has. Radiki has expanded and now exports products from the Peloponnese to Paris and London. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.