Snapshot of main Athens meat market

The plasma screens hanging above the mostly Albanian salesmen flash welcome messages but the number of Greek customers frequenting the market has diminished. Media cameras are a common sight here at Easter and Christmastime to broadcast the rise or fall in lamb or turkey prices but not the decline in customers. Yiannis Koufopoulos has done numerous odd jobs in his life and even studied public relations and marketing before taking on his father’s butcher shop in the Varvakeio meat market. Business is not very good, with a 60 percent drop in sales. Migrants – from Pakistan, Iraq and Albania – and less-well-off Greeks are the main customers, which is why many of the salesmen are foreign. The majority of customers shop around for the cheapest meat available. Most of the butcher shops in the market belong to the old generation and pass on the trade to their offspring. Koufopoulos invested a considerable sum in the shop to make improvements and his father complained that he had wasted the money. Given the chance, many of the butchers would leave and open up elsewhere with a steady clientele or, better still, move out of Athens to a provincial town. Albanians have already bought five or six of the shops in the market and this trend is likely to continue. Giorgos remembers 20 to 30 years ago when they would sleep on the benches in the market as they finished late. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were for wholesale and Tuesdays and Thursdays for retail. Giorgos, who has spent a good part of his life in the market, believes there are few professionals today, some cannot tell the difference between lamb and goat. The best years were before 1995, when housewives from all over Athens came and filled their shopping bags with chops and joints. Before dawn, the suppliers unload the meat and then the workers arrive. The customers come after 7 a.m. When the carcasses are unloaded, the butchers cut the meat into pieces and the sellers and processors remove the bones. Other assistants carry the meat and sweep and clean. The cashiers do the weighing and money transactions. The market’s president, Kleanthis Tsironis, has been here for 42 years and is the best-known figure in the market. «It’s difficult to survive here,» he said. «You have to first work as an employee, to get to know the culture of the market and then become a shop owner.» He added that funds were lacking, so much so that customers can purchase their meat in four interest-free installments. One of the problems could be the absence of parking facilities and the fact that parking offenses get hefty fines. There is no metro station nearby either. The have-nots are the ones who shop here. There are also eateries in the meat market offering various dishes such as patsas, made from offal, while refreshments and traditional cheese pies and bougatsa are served in the Tou Angelou cafe. A raffle draw takes place every day among the market community and winners might have a bottle of whisky to add to their day’s takings. At the cafe everyone’s order is written down and paid at the end of the month on payday as opposed to paying upon being served. Some of the customers in the market come only to have a meal rather than do any shopping. Not surprisingly, the market attracts groups of tourists who are often seen in the market taking snapshots of sights such as a crate full of sheep’s heads. There are 105-108 meat stores in the market and about 500 workers. Wages are low and the hours long, with shopkeepers often working double time for a day’s wage in order to make ends meet. The meat market is a family issue with ownership of the stores handed down from father to son. No new people take on the trade despite high levels of unemployment in the labor market. Thanassis Stamatelatos, whose son is upset that the shop is not doing well, says that Greeks either bring up their kids to be scientists or layabouts, neither of whom want to soil their hands. It is likely that the large businesses in the food market will win and the local markets will disappear. For the moment, Greeks still prefer to see their joints cut before their eyes rather than buy them already packaged. (1) The article first appeared in Kathimerini’s supplement K on December 16, 2007.