In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city and the country’s gourmet capital, a counter-culture seems to be on the rise, aiming to maintain the purity and superiority of small-scale production and scouring traditional recipes and products for overlooked gastronomic treasures. Small businesses and food stores that have made it their mission to modernize the traditional grocery store concept keep popping up all over the place, often combining high-quality products with impressive design.

Perhaps it is the context of the crisis that encourages this quest for new ideas and related business models – or perhaps it is the fact that despite the crisis, food remains the main indulgence and distraction for the local populace, defining the city’s social life and leaving plenty of space for innovation. In terms of health, many forgotten recipes and remedies could replace similar mass-produced products – and let’s not forget the social benefits of sharing a good meal. In the words of Greek philosopher Epicurus, “all you need for a good life is enough to eat and drink and the company of good friends.” In this spirit, the shift towards locally produced food is intimately linked to quality of life.

According to Babis Papanikolaou and Christina Tsiraggelou of 157+173 designers, traditional food markets still exist, but often feel somewhat outdated and behind the times. Nowadays, it is mostly young entrepreneurs who invest in the design of their packaging and stores. Faced with growing competition, purveyors of food rely on a team of architects and graphic designers to communicate their products and attract new clients. Young people understand that design and marketing are just as important as product quality. In our predominantly visual age, the way to a consumer’s stomach is through their eyes.

Take the Mia Feta – feta bar, a dairy shop meets wine bar and bistro (designed by 157+173 designers) selling local goods and delicacies. The shop’s motto, “taste and shop,” pinpoints Mia Feta’s dual existence and two-pronged approach. Apart from dairy products, Mia Feta sells a variety of olive oils, olives, dried mushrooms, and jams by independent producers, while a big central table invites clients to try a few feta-based dishes accompanied by wine of coffee.

One of the first efforts of this kind, opened back in 2008, was started by two brothers from Thessaloniki. Back then, they approached several local producers to create a new brand that could guarantee a unified and unique quality across a wide range of products. Since their launch, Ergon have opened a series of functional grocery stores with an in-house casual restaurant, gradually expanding their activities to several Greek cities and even abroad with their recent London restaurant debut.

According to one of Ergon’s founders, Thomas Douzis, the duo started in their own home town because they wanted to create a point of reference for Thessaloniki – a city with a very strong food culture that is open to experimentation and new gastronomic ideas. “We did not intend to create a new type of tavern; we already enjoy the traditional ones. What we wanted was a place that focused on Greek products; a cozy place that invites customers to explore, taste, and shop without any pressure of the past or contemporary hype. As a positive side effect, traditional products gain enthusiastic support – and this in turn makes them more affordable due to rising sales volumes.”

The success of similar schemes only proves that urbanites are more than willing to rediscover traditional food as something that continues to evolve and deserves our appreciation. As part of this trend, many long-lost recipes and ingredients are starting to resurface. And as the notions of local, natural, and healthy are reentering our everyday vocabulary, stores like Mia Feta and Ergon provide welcome hubs for high-quality food products – and an audience that actively seeks to rediscover their nutritious properties.

Text: Cristina Ampatzidou
Header image: Ergon