Understanding the food distribution system of Athens is a challenge. Similar in size to Metro Detroit, at slightly more than 4 million in population, their system is much less concentrated. Food is sold in a bewildering assortment of venues. From thousands of shops, to a nice range of grocery stores, to robust weekly neighborhood farmers’ markets, to a regional wholesale market dabbing at outlet sales, to of course its version of a large public market.
The Varvakios Market is a complex of buildings that features a main hall dedicated to fish that is surrounded on three sides by a covered street where meat is sold. The fourth side which faces Athinas Street hosts a variety of specialty food items especially nuts, dried fruits, and spices. Across the street is an underground parking facility flanked by two streets where fruits and vegetables are sold.
Fish and meat are heart of the market. Produce sales are hemmed in by the Laiki Agores, the weekly neighborhood markets that pop up all over metro Athens.
Meat and fish vendors sell to both wholesale and retail markets. Many restaurants buy their fish and meat here but retail sales have been in steady decline since the Greek financial crisis began in 2008.
The meat market is facing huge challenges. Much of the retail trade is to price conscious shoppers particularly the elderly whose pensions have been reduced between 33% - 50% since Greece was forced to the austerity party in 2011.
Over the past five years, 17 meat vendors have closed. Current vacancies are limited because surviving firms took more space. That’s likely to change after Easter, the most widely and deeply celebrated holiday of the year in Greece. Five of the ten remaining meat vendors are expected to close according to Klathis who has served as President of the meat sellers association for more than 20 years.
While he doesn’t plan on closing his business anytime soon, he does worry that unless things pick up he will not be able to hand the business off to his daughter who works beside him. It pains him that he will not be able to make the transition from the fourth to the fifth generation of family ownership.
The financial crisis in Greece is in large part due to its pension obligations. Currently, Greece is negotiating another round of funding from the European Union to keep from defaulting on its accumulated debt.
In its current fiscal year, Greece is projecting to take in more tax revenue than it pays out in public sector expenditures. This, the result of five years of previous belt tightening, is impressive but not sustainable. According to an article in the Guardian, demographics and economic malaise render this impossible to continue. Currently, Greece spends 9% of its GDP on pensions not because the benefits are so rich but because there are so many old and unemployed Greeks.
Behind only Germany and Italy, 20.5% of Greeks are 65 or older. The rest of the EU looks aghast at the numbers of Greeks who take early retirement but between the ages of 55 and 64 unemployment has risen from 6% to 20% since the crisis began. Early retirement is often not a lifestyle choice for Greek workers.It would be good if those older workers were leaving the workforce to make room for younger workers but that isn’t the case. Youth unemployment continues to hover around 50% as it has for the last five years.
The can will likely get kicked down the road this year. The EU and the Greek government will figure out a way to fund another bailout round that will keep Greece from defaulting but won’t fix the underlying problems.
On the fish side of the market, things are a little bit brighter. No significant vacancies but a great turnover. There are around 40 fish sellers and about one third are new over the last five years. The fish business has a lower threshold of entry, it takes less space and money to get started and oh by the way – many immigrants to Greece that were fishermen where they came from have established businesses in Greece and taken space from legacy businesses that have folded.
Athens Central Market is in line for a major set of capital improvements. A 40-year cycle of improvements in due and there is a public-private entity that will help guide this project. It operates the regional wholesale market and manages fisheries throughout Greece.
The Varvakios Market is a key asset in the food eco-system of Athens. It has great authenticity but needs to become more relevant to a changing food economy. A great strategic puzzle to wrestle with not unlike some I am quite familiar with.