The cost of doing everything right in Greece

It shopped locally, issued receipts and earned rave reviews but the pressure of staying afloat on a popular island was too much for this bistro

The cost of doing everything right in Greece

Two things are certain: Irini Kakoulidou will finally get a holiday this summer and it won’t be on Tinos. That is not to say her love of the island she’s been attached to for the past 30 years is in any way diminished, but after running the Xotiko bistro there for four years with her husband, she needs a break. She settled its bills, packed away its customers’ rave reviews for the food and service, locked the door and said goodbye to the catering industry once and for all. Working hard is one thing; futility is quite another.

What went wrong? What lessons can be learned from this small restaurant’s brief life? Xotiko served creative Greek cuisine, with its talented chef, Chryssa Kataki, putting together dishes guided by seasonality and local ingredients: from cherry tomatoes and wild artichokes from the hinterland to fillets of Tinos’ famous veal. But the restaurant was stuck between the clashing rocks, says Kakoulidou, with many so-called “traditional” tavernas serving tinned stuffed vine leaves and flouting every rule on the one hand, and, on the other, wannabe fine-dining establishments appealing to the influencer crowd.

“Ours was a culinary model that doesn’t bring the quick earnings of a business that sells seaweed as silk ribbons. We didn’t want to cut costs, which means reducing the quality. We didn’t want to serve imported beef, but fillet from Kouroupa’s, and local vegetables and cheeses. Unsurprisingly, 80% of our clientele was foreigners. It wasn’t patronized by Greeks because it didn’t have the qualities that most Greeks are looking for. Foreign diners were better able to distinguish Greek cuisine that was not overly creative and was served properly,” she says.

Xotiko represented the middle ground, serving well-executed dishes, made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. “Serving the fillet with artichokes makes sense. Serving sardines with a honey sauce doesn’t,” she says of a dish that has been widely commented on on social media after acclaimed chef Yiannis Baxevanis had it in a well-known restaurant and remarked in a post: “Is this what is called progress?”

Kakoulidou and her husband had very strong opinions about what constitutes good Greek cuisine and a good dining experience when they embarked on their adventure with Xotiko. Among other things, they wanted a restaurant for people like them. “We wanted fair prices, not to charge 18 euros for a plate of pasta just because the season lasts a couple of months,” she says.

The couple didn’t know it at the time, but what they had was a recipe for disaster. “This is what happens when you go by the book, like issuing a receipt for every sale and not just when the tax inspectors show up on the boat. We’re too old to take big risks, but we wanted to give our idea a go,” says Kakoulidou.

The concept appeared to be a success; Xotiko was doing brisk business and getting rave reviews on all the different platforms from diners. “Nevertheless, we never became trendy. We ran out of money as banks stopped lending and we weren’t eligible for government support. We discovered that we had no allies; not the state, nor the media. Some people turned up once and told us they were big on Instagram and wanted a meal for free. We gave it to them. What else were we to do? The funny thing is that they were completely clueless,” she says.

‘Ours was a culinary model that doesn’t bring the quick earnings of a business that sells seaweed as silk ribbons’

Kakoulidou believes that there’s a scene “between taverna and ersatz gourmet” that is doing important work but is not getting the support it needs. “This is to the detriment of Greek cuisine in the long term. Our cuisine is an important asset, an important part of our intangible cultural heritage, just as important as drystone walls and demotic music.”

She remembers eating at iconic Athenian family restaurants like Gerofinikas, Magemenos Avlos and Ideal as a child and later, as an adult, at Kentrikon and Palaia Vouli, all of which were known for their good-quality and affordable Greek cuisine – and most of which are no longer in business. “We’ve lost that, the scene and the quality, the value for money, the essence of proper Greek cuisine, which you can sample with abandon and joy, without fear of going bankrupt,” says Kakoulidou.

Panos Pournaras is a marketing director in the food industry and recently discovered his new favorite Italian restaurant in Athens. “You only have to taste the food to see the real problem with the systemic PR that determines our choices as if we were robots,” he said in a post on Greek Food Mood, a Facebook page where he comments on food and eateries.

“It is a very popular restaurant in Peristeri, with excellent comfort food, reasonable prices and incredible service, and not a single line has been written about it,” Pournaras tells Kathimerini, referring to the western Athenian suburb that is off the mainstream foodie map. The restaurant is doing well thanks to word of mouth, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Pournaras says that most businesses are doomed today without PR backing and a few good words from influencers and food critics. We talk about the Tinos bistro that went bust. “There’s a place that was in dire need of communication. Production in Greece is small-scale and the cost of ingredients is quite high, so if you’re not charging 100 euros per person, you need a very strong narrative to survive. Running a restaurant in Greece is a tough act. You die on your feet not making money, but just making a living,” he says.

This is why, he says, almost every new big arrival on the food scene tends to be short-lived. “You often get the same restaurateur opening business after business. Why? Because they go broke and move on. And why is that? Because if you want to sell good-quality food at a reasonable price, you need to do certain things that we’re still not resigned to, like slot reservations,” he says, referring to the practice of booking a table for a fixed amount of time in order to ensure more turnover.

“Greeks won’t go for that, though. They want to sit at a table and leave whenever they like. The only place they’ll accept such a thing is at a fashionable restaurant, where they want to be part of the trend,” Pournaras adds.

The exploitation and cheapening of the country’s food culture is not going unnoticed by those responsible for branding it the Greek tourism product.

“What we do, advertising the product, is the easy part. The actual product is the hard part. Advertising is nothing on its own,” says Ioanna Dretta, CEO of Marketing Greece. “The situation in the catering industry has definitely improved, with much greater scope, variety and quality, but there are also a lot of poor examples, especially on the islands and especially on those with very large numbers of tourists.”

Tinos, she says, also has success stories, most notable of which is that of Tinos Food Paths, an institution established around five years ago by local professionals with the aim of associating the island’s cuisine with its history. “It started from the grassroots, at the restaurant level, and grew when the sponsors and politicians joined in,” says Dretta.

The initiative really took off when the island of Mykonos started becoming so overcrowded that people looked for nearby alternatives for their holiday homes. “Tinos got the overflow,” says Vetta. “The best thing for a destination is to have privately owned holiday homes, because these people have a stake in protecting what the area has to offer. That said, the problems besetting Mykonos are also contagious.”

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