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Titan Foods: The Strongest Rabbit Delivers the Biggest Food Basket
by Athena Efter
I don’t think there is a single Greek person in the whole tri-state area who doesn’t know the “titan” or the giant of Greek supermarkets Titan Foods. In fact, Titan Foods is well-known all over the country and the world, as far as Chicago and even …Qatar! I had the pleasure of listening to Kostas Mastoras, owner and founder, humbly and proudly recount two stories, among many, as I sat in his offices upstairs. In his own words: “I remember I was in Chicago and I saw a bag with the big green olive and Titan all across the bag, and I was almost in tears.” Then, there is the story of the Greek (or Greek-American) Lieutenant in the Air Force who wanted an order of the traditional Greek Easter bread tsoureki shipped to him all the way to Qatar. I was a bit stunned. Really? Qatar?? Was that a Fedex or UPS shipment? It was any company that delivered there, and Kostas Mastoras makes it all happen with his own food empire that started right here in the heart of Astoria.
Kostas Mastoras, his business and life partner wife Stavroula Mastoras, and his business associates are all part of this thriving Greek food operation. And it’s thriving alright. What started as a small cheese and dairy store in 1984 eventually expanded, and rather quickly, into a Greek mega store where you can buy over 20 different kinds of olive oil, cheeses, olives, herbs, frozen foods, pastas, pastries, and anything Greek you want to taste and get your hands on, or sink your teeth into, like freshly made spinach and cheese pies, melomakarona and kourabiedes (Greek cookies) all made at Domna’s Bakery, an homage to his mother Domna, a baker, and her authentic sweet tasting recipes.
Titan Foods first opened its doors on March 25, 1984, the day of that famous day in Greek history when Greeks finally started the fight for their freedom and independence from the Ottoman Empire, which is annually celebrated with a big Greek parade on Fifth Avenue here in New York City. Kostas Mastoras remembers that day well because it was the day his first independent business venture opened its doors to a stampede of the entire Greek parade. He wasn’t expected such a grand opening. They all came in flocks and droves and he was hardly prepared for that kind of grand entrance in what he noted was a small traditional store of 600-700 square feet, but they managed, and it was enough of great start to eventually start expanding to its current location of 5,000 square feet, just down the road from its original location, complete with shopping carts and parking facilities, and most recently with new renovations.
He added a whole section of traditional prepared foods, like roasted chicken, lemon potatoes, moussaka, baked shrimp and the plate du jour. Too lazy to cook? Just go Titan for mom’s take-out at very reasonable prices. But that’s not all. Titan has an array of frozen foods, which was also recently reinforced to bring more selections. Where else can you get over 4,000 Greek items including egg dye for your Easter eggs, masticha (a Greek sap gum used in baking or chewed as gum), baked goods, olive oil, cheese, olives, pasta, butter, herbs, worry beads, yogurt……and let’s talk about Greek yogurt and how popular it’s become in mainstream yogurt culture. We’ll start with Fage, the brand that would change the way the whole world eats yogurt. Mr. Mastoras, who holds a degree from the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki and a Masters degree from St. John’sUniversity, was the first entrepreneur to market this highly successful product and what is now a six billion dollar Greek yogurt industry to the U.S.
Kostas prides himself on this import as being his greatest accomplishment as a businessman, so much so that Forbes Magazine wanted to find out who was the brain behind the moving and shaking of this revolutionary product. He spent many nights at JFK waiting for shipments of Fage. I even had the opportunity to receive a small introductory crash course business 101 seminar. As a man committed to bringing you the finest quality products with the finest ingredients, Mr. Mastoras explained to me that 1 lb of American yogurt costs $.99 compared to 6 oz. of Fage Greek at $2.79. What does that tell me? It’s the gold standard of yogurt. People loved it and kept buying it and its sales have soared throughout the United States, if not the world.
Mr. Mastoras is not just a businessman. He is also a mentor to many young students in Greece and a speaker at several events held by the Chamber of Commerce. He loves food and he loves what he does, which is to continuously research and bring new Greek products to us, and he credits his passion for his success. He travels the world, mainly Europe to attend numerous food expos where he samples and buys only the best quality product. He is an outspoken advocate for how to improve the Greek economy through the food industry. He tells his students to stay in Greece, to cultivate their products and resources, and to learn how to market and sell them, because if anyone knows about marketing success, he’s got that market covered. He advises and consults students on how to start their own companies. Because of the economic austerity in Greece, he believes it is now more important than ever for young people to start cultivating their own products, like honey, olive oil, and even herbs such as thyme and oregano.
The advice he gives students is to take whatever they have that can be made into food products, or any kind of product for that matter, and market it. The problem, in his eyes, is that they have the products but they lack the experience, and as a man of experience and personal success, he wants to share that secret and key to success by guiding them through that process. Almost 95% of sales come from Greece, because his business heavily depends on Greek imports, and it is also his way of stimulating the Greek economy. Even frozen spinach is imported from Greece! There are over 400 suppliers in Greece. By giving them business, you keep them there and you keep the economy moving, according to Mr. Mastoras, and I couldn’t agree more. These manufacturers export to the Europe, Australia and Titan Foods.
I asked Mr. Mastoras how the recent collapse of the economy affected his business, as I looked around at all the Easter baskets and products that decorated the store in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. “We were lucky this year that Easter is on May 1. Business was affected in 2015 and in January and February 2016. There were no shipments during those months. Luckily there are very few Greek Roman Catholics, because April Easter would have been a tough sell this year,” he explains. “And because of capital controls on the banking system at $420 Euros per week, it became necessary to open bank accounts in Bulgaria and Cyprus for machinery, parts and raw materials, which he also imports from Greece. The entire case of prepared foods is made from raw materials that came from Greece under the manufacturing name of Dragoulakis, which was part of his 1.2 million dollar renovation project. So if the Greek economy depends on the import of these materials, without a free moving economy, it can’t be done.” This year, we won’t have any problem if we want to buy ready-made magiritsa or traditional Greek Easter soup. They’ll also dye the eggs for you to eliminate the big mess it will make in your kitchen and ship them to you without a crack.
He also cites the importance of keeping up with the latest trends and to adapt to changes in shopping habits. For example, the shift towards organic products is now in high demand, so he stocks a whole line of organic products. Domna’s Bakery is now making tsoureki with Stevia, a sugar substitute, and he would like to, in the near future, start offering more baked goods with this substitution to better serve those with dietary restrictions. The yogurt and healthy Mediterranean diet food trend has also opened up his doors to a whole new clientele. Today his customers are a 50/50 split between Greeks and non-Greeks. He’s come a long way since his first store opened with 100% Greek patronage and cash only. The majority of income now comes from credit card use.
Mr. Mastoras just kept talking and my hand was about to fall off, but I kept writing at the speed of which he was talking, because he had a lot to tell me and I was all ears. I even managed to tap into his inner comedian when he recounted the story of how a man tried to pay for his purchases at his first store with a credit card. His reply: “Sir, this is not Bloomingdales but a small ethnic food store.” Well, cover me plastic! The Greek “Stop and Shop” will accept your American express now.
He admits that it wasn’t always easy to be away from his family. You can’t be in one country and attend your child’s play at school, especially when you are working 7am-9pm non-stop on a 14 hour day, but his family is his pride and joy. They are very much a part of the operation. His children, Anthony and Angela carry on the tradition and bring as he stated, an “American way” into it. He claims to still think the Greek way. So what does all that mean? It means the creative marketing strategies they bring into it that contribute greatly to its success. His children are tech savvy. They created TitanFoods.net as a way to reach people throughout the country and the world. Anyone can order anything and have it shipped to their door, even as far as Alaska and Qatar. And I personally will never forget that enormous billboard with the signature green olive over the Grand Central Expressway at the mouth of the Triboro Bridge.He hired a high level Greek-American art director that works for MSNBC, Victoria Todis, who happens to also be one of my best friends, to design his logo and marketing materials. He thanks her profusely for lending her creative vision to his success.
With four companies working their food magic, there is no doubt that he will continue to refine and enhance his business in a changing world to adapt to keep customers satisfied and coming back for more. His distribution company, Optima Foods in Deer Park, takes all the products they import through his Athens based warehouse, Atlantic Food Exports, which selects, packages and ships products to them, so they can, in turn, take their trucks and distribute them all over the tri-state area to a variety of restaurants and gourmet food stores. They are also the distributor of Titan’s optimum group brand Attica food products. He also opened up a second Titan Foods for retail in Deer Park, so if you are not an online shopper and you don’t want make the journey to Astoria, you can stay right where you are on Long Island and go shopping more conveniently there. But wherever you are, it doesn’t really matter. If you want it you can have it with the click of your mouse and have it shipped to your house. And with Domna’s Bakery in Deer Park baking up all kinds of fresh and tasty Greek sweets, why bother baking this year? I bought a box of melamokarona and kourabiedes (Greek cookies) and shared them with my American friends and they loved them, just as much as I did. And no, you do not have to be Greek to go Greek or love Greek. My Italian American friends came all the way from Nyack one day because they wanted me to take them shopping at Titan Foods. They spent some time in Greece and wanted very specific products that they couldn’t find anywhere else but here at Titan. It was an adventure to shop in his bright, sunny store with white-washed rustic walls reminiscent of Greece, and also a lot of fun to learn more about what products they wanted that even I, as a first-generation Greek-American woman, never heard of.
Kostas didn’t forget to thank all of his patrons and customers for their continued loyalty and support over the years. By committing himself to ensuring that the finest ingredients are brought to you, he assures us of his dedication. It’s a lengthy and detailed process to have all nutrition facts and labels registered with U.S Customs, and it takes 8-12 months to make a product under the proper guidelines and conditions, but his team at the U.S Embassy trusts him, and we do too. He also wants to thank the publisher of NEO Magazine, Demetrios Rhompotis and his associates for their continued support. He wishes everyone a “Kalo Pascha or Happy Easter”. Feel free to stop by on weekends when he has tastings of food samples and new products weekly. It’s a great way to shop and be introduced to new products. I picked up a half pound of Greek Feta cheese from a region I never heard of, but the free sample at the right room temperature sold me. I brought it for myself, but then decided to give it as a gift among the cookies I bought to my American friends, who only know the sour tasting, overly salted domestic brand of Feta that cannot be served on its own as an artisanal cheese. Nope. Not this Feta. It was velvety creamy smooth and mild in flavor and definitely worth introducing. It was even better than my favorite French Feta. I can’t remember the name. It began with a Z, but you’ll have to stop in and find out for yourself, because he sells over 20 different kinds of cheese!