By Lisa Radinovsky, Greek Liquid Gold
Sandwiched between nations struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, Greece is a surprising success story. But with stay-at-home orders in place for a month, exporters of the country’s flagship products can hardly escape the impact of COVID-19. Three Greek olive oil companies exemplify the varied effects of social distancing and closures on Greek businesses.
Evi Psounou Prodromou, co-owner of Yanni’s Olive Grove, reports that her company has not laid off their employees. Bottling facility workers have been staying home since most Greek shops closed on March 13, receiving the 800 euro monthly allowance provided by the Greek government, with the difference between that and their full salary paid by Yanni’s Olive Grove.
“In this way,” explains Prodromou, “we help them during these hard times, because after all, they helped our company many times in the past, when we needed them to work overtime for urgent orders. We are a family company, and we feel that they are ‘our people,’ part of our family.”
However, this small olive oil production and distribution business in Nea Potidaia, Chalkidiki, northern Greece reports major disruptions to their business during the COVID-19 pandemic, “because our main clients are in the USA,” where “the market situation is unfortunately very bad,” according to Prodromou. “We had to stop selling there. Only a few small orders were sent within Europe, mainly to the UK and Romania.” The cancellations of major exhibitions in Athens (Food Expo) and New York (Summer Fancy Food Show) also disadvantaged her company by limiting contact with new buyers.
Even so, Prodromou feels fortunate to have permanent workers doing the olive tree pruning that is now underway in their part of Greece. Others in their area have had trouble finding laborers. Like many in the agricultural sector, Prodromou worries about what will happen at harvest time if a coronavirus vaccine is not ready yet, and there are new restraining measures. “Chalkidiki needs many workers, because we harvest only by hand,” starting in late September.
For Maria Katsetos, owner of Loutraki Oil Company, with its olive oil production, distribution, and bottling facilities at the northeastern edge of the Peloponnesian peninsula, the situation looks different these days. “It’s not exactly business as usual,” she says, “but we still maintain our faithful clientele. Sales have been continuing, but with hiccups. Our customers are also very concerned about how the virus could affect any incoming orders.” Many send customized packing requests, while some ask for videos of product preparation.
To protect their customers’ and employees’ health, Katsetos and her team have made several changes to their business, such as introducing social distancing within and outside the factory, upgrading uniforms, thoroughly sanitizing packaging, and cleaning and sterilizing their factory twice a day instead of once. They focus on providing “a safe environment for good health in the workplace,” Katsetos explains, because “it is a matter of life and death.”
These changes have enabled the Loutraki Oil Company to continue working with its dedicated employees, offering them extra care and sympathy and a discussion with a psychologist, and broadcasting talk shows that provide accurate information about the coronavirus while they work. Katsetos emphasizes the importance of company owners and managers educating themselves about the virus so they can help others stay calm, assist the vulnerable, and “exercise extreme caution to make their workers feel secure in these uncertain times.”
Farther south in Chania on the island of Crete, where few coronavirus cases have been confirmed to date, Eftychios Androulakis describes his experience. As the owner of the very small Pamako olive oil production and bottling company, Androulakis reports that “sales are normal, with people still buying Pamako from our partners on the internet” in Europe, Russia, and North America. Nothing has changed with his distribution, and his online sales are growing, as many online sales are these days.
There has been a slight delay in launching a new olive tree adoption program called Golden Gift in partnership with four other producers of extra healthy high phenolic olive oil, and Androulakis’s own new product launch will be deferred until next year. Otherwise, his work continues. “Of course, our lives have changed, and things are a little bit different now. But this will never affect our love for organic, high phenolic olive oil. We are already making some changes to the olive mill,” inventing ways to continue innovations there and investing in new purchases in the mill and bottling plant. Androulakis is also participating in a new program with the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania that involves experiments with all the olive varieties in Greece.
In a series of Greek-language articles, the online publication Olivenews.gr has been featuring the views of various stakeholders in the Greek olive oil sector for several weeks. This series suggests that many olive farmers have been able to continue their work to date, like Androulakis, although there is some concern about the supply of tools and spare parts and about the availability of foreign migrant laborers for the harvest in the fall.
According to Olivenews.gr, there is also uncertainty about what will happen to demand as consumers weigh financial challenges against their desire for the health protecting properties of extra virgin olive oil. For now, increased supermarket sales due to concerns about the food supply have occurred alongside severely decreased demand for olive oil from specialty stores and the food services and hospitality sector. Transportation disruptions have affected the distribution of some olive oil, both inside and beyond Greece.
Currently, the picture in the Greek olive oil world is unclear, with both shadows and bright spots breaking through the fog. What is clear: Greek olive oil exporters remain dedicated to sharing their healthy products with as much of the world as they can reach.