By Sean Mathews/ Photos courtesy of Ergon Foods
Following in the footsteps of businessmen from his country, Thomas Douzis emanates a certain creative flexibility common in Greece and the Mediterranean.
“Why not add feta to your guacamole?” The entrepreneur says, eyebrows raised and shrugging his shoulder. “I don’t know, but possibly it could work and create a nice taste.” Such are the musings of the co-founder of the successful Greek artisanal marketplace and restaurant brand Ergon Foods.
Douzis credits ideas like these to the success and expansion of the brand over the past 12 years. “Outside of a few main dishes, we (Greece) are not very popular for recipes globally. In my opinion Greek food products build the reputation of Greek cuisine,” Douzis told Levendeia from his Thessaloniki office.
When he moved to London in 2013 to manage the opening of the Ergon Foods outpost in Mayfair this was the approach he took.
“We didn't go to London with an ethnic approach,” he smiles adding. “The idea was let’s try to invade your breakfast with a little bit of Greece at a time.”
Invade they did.
What began as a venture between him and his brother George to brand and market local food products in Thessaloniki has today grown into a global franchise with 13 locations spread throughout Greece and Europe with plans to open across the Middle East.
In 2004 at the age of 21, Thomas and his then 18 year old brother began visiting local artisanal producers in the Thessaloniki area and asking them for the chance to sell their products.
“When you are in your early twenties you have nothing to lose. We just gave it a go. It was as simple as telling these old school producers, ‘Hey guys we want to try and sell your product,’” Douzis said.
While Greece is known for the quality and freshness of its traditional food products, many of its producers are small family businesses that either lack the resources to contact the marketing and distribution networks needed to compete in global and regional marketplaces or simply prefer to focus on their craft and not pursue branding their products.
By 2008 the Douzis brothers realized they needed an umbrella brand for the various items they had been selling and Ergon Foods was born.
In 2011 they launched a small deli in Thessaloniki. “We saw a retail space as a self-financing marketing tool,” Douzis said.
They opened in the backdrop of the economic crisis and Greece’s worst years were still ahead of it. “The crisis hit our generation during our most productive years, but what could we do. It was also an opportunity,” he told Levendeia.
Just three months after opening their small deli, the location had become such a success that they were approached by the luxury Sani Resort in Halkidiki, Greece to open a shop on their grounds.
“The space they gave us was too big. We didn't know how we could even promote all the products that we would be able to stock,” Douzis said reflecting.
The Ergon model that customers are familiar with today, combining sleek industrial eating spaces with a classic agora market, stocking everything from specialty cheeses and seafood to spreads like taramasalata, was born from the idea to fill in the extra space with meze style dinning.
“We decided to make a restaurant and cook with our products to educate customers about what they were buying,” he said.
The brothers went on to franchise the idea and expand from Thessaloniki and Athens to islands such as Skiathos and Cyprus. The location in Athens, which is also home to the boutique Ergon House Hotel and site of a rooftop bar collaboration with The Clumsies, has recently been awarded a Michelin Plate.
Douzis says there is still lots of room for growth in Greek food products and plenty of opportunities to bring quality items to the market.
Part of this is due to years of economic malaise and lack of investment in Greece.
“The economic crisis completely destroyed the mediums. Today, the Greek producer must find the retainer by himself and find the designers, distributors and promotors. In America, there is a structure in place that allows producers to just focus on producing,” he adds. “Greece struggles to give the producers networks.”
I ask Douzis if part of the allure of Greek brands, the fact that they still feel hidden along with their smaller and less developed nature, is the very thing that too much marketing and branding could crush, as it has in more Western Mediterranean countries.
“It’s tricky. But I say, let’s keep it easy. Don't shout it. You don't need to do massive marketing campaigns,” he cautioned.
He points to a recent collaboration between Ergon Foods and the Greek fashion designer Zeus+Dione as the type of tasteful and creative marketing that Greek brands can focus on.
He says Ergon Foods is well positioned to maintain the essence of Greek products while it expands.
“Although it is more expensive, we work with artists, architects, and designers every time to make sure our cafés and our shops are each unique.”