ATHENS – As food industry veteran Phil Kafarakis approaches his second anniversary as President of the Specialty Food Association (SFA), he is excited about the annual Specialty Food Show that will pack Manhattan’s Javits Convention Center June 30-July 2, but he is also thrilled about the opportunities his position presents for him to help Greece make long-awaited export breakthroughs.
“I have seen progress…There will be 2800 exhibitors, close to 100 from Greece” in government sponsored and private pavilions. “I am very excited,” but the industry leader and father of four believes in tough love. The priceless advice he offers Hellenes comes with a sting. Point one: “It’s difficult to enter a marketplace if you don’t have a plan.” He urges attendees to “come prepared to business. It’s not enough to merely be present.”
He tells the truth about the marketplace, but adds “I don’t want people to feel intimidated about coming to the U.S. market. It is large, but segmented – you can pick and choose your opportunities based on the size and capability…There are some great companies here and they come to the show and make good impressions.”
SFA tapped his leadership at moment of turmoil and opportunity for companies “due to the aggressiveness of small entrepreneurs pulling away chunks of the marketplace. Our new vision is shaping the future of food…It’s an exciting time and that’s why I excited about being here. And I’m proud of being Greek and helping in any way I can.” Changes in consumer behavior, like new emphases in health and wellness, shine a spotlight on the Mediterranean diet so “Greece fits right in,” Kafarakis said.
The path of opportunity begins with self-assessment: “First, figure out what you can and can’t do, and then come into the market.”
And he takes his own advice. A key turn in his career was earning an MBA at Georgetown University when he was 46, excelling in an elite program while he continued in businesses with three of his four kids in college. With the support of his wife, a teacher, it was a classic “Back to School” scenario. “It was crazy, but a lot of fun,” he said.
Told agriculture could be the sleeper economic sector in Greece, Kafarakis responded “It is – they don’t know it, but it is… and so is the whole idea of connecting all the elements of the Greek experience, whether it’s on a farm or beach, antiquities and food.”
He knows Greece and how to speak with Greeks because he grew up in Athens before his family moved to the U.S. Kafarakis is devoted to community and the Church – “we lived in 11 Greek Orthodox Communities across the country” with his strongest roots in the Baltimore -Washington area.
He won a track and field scholarship to Northern Arizona University, “then I came back…married my high school sweetheart, a Greek girl from DC, and went into the food business,” including 10 years McCormick & Company.
Numerous trips to Greece revealed a reality in the food sector rife with frustration and opportunity. “Frankly, it is dysfunctional. They need a lot of work about how to go into the marketplace. Everybody thought ‘if you know somebody, what else do you need?’”
TRY TO WORK TOGETHER
But there are pioneers leading the charge promoting Greek foods. “It’s happening, it can be done, but my greatest plea to people in Greece is please try to work together! If you do that, the pie really does get bigger.”
“They must set aside their differences. Let the co-op model that works well for other countries work for them. Let it be your marketing and sales arm…but Greece’s co-ops are dysfunctional. They can’t seem to figure out how to work together.”
“The government is trying to foster change, but they must accelerate entrepreneurial programs and getting small family businesses into markets – they would thrive,” he said, and he fears Greece might miss the boat if they wait for a generational shift – there is competition, like the Israelis, and even Turkey.
“There are other organizations in addition to ours that can help them,” he said, the Greek government’s Enterprise Greece, diaspora groups like The Hellenic Initiative which reaches out to start-ups, and “The American Hellenic Chamber of commerce is doing good work, focusing on professional best practices.”
Still, “it is like pulling teeth try to get people to understand the importance of time lines and the strategic and focused planning approaches required for success,” he said.
Then there is the government. “People in the Diaspora still see the government as dysfunctional. I tell people I want to build and a house in Greece and they laugh at me.”
“Tt’s a lot better than it’s been,” he said “but you still cannot accelerate any type of investment project here…what you need here to move those things along is still an unknown,” at all government levels.
“I think the crisis jolted them into understanding some of the development issues…it can come together if they accelerate things like enterprise zones. You see what is happening in the hotel sector with all that money coming…all the investors are watching to see how that works.”
There are still horror stories about what happens when antiquities are found. “There must be a way for bridging some of those problems and balancing archaeological and environmental concerns…build around it – quickly,” but the seemingly endless process has kept many serious investors away Kafarakis said.
He knows what he is talking about. “We built two plants in China in 8 years.”
“U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt has been terrific,” Kafarakis said, strengthening economic ties. “SFA will be involved in the Thessaloniki International Fair in September, trying to get American firms to Greece, which is a gateway to Eastern Europe – especially for small and midsize U.S. companies,”
He believes big investors will come, “but the growth and the opportunities are in smaller, family-run businesses willing to take risks. That’s the model around the world, but you must help them.”
Finally, Kafarakis believes Greek-Americans – not just the fantastic young restaurateurs – are excellent ambassadors for Greek food. He said what’s been done with “the Mediterranean diet is great, but it seems to have gotten stuck on the academic side – studies and conferences. We need to throw it into discussions about lifestyles, and show how it plays into health, wellness with a variety of foods – Greek yogurt is a phenomenon in the United States that you can build on.”