Small businesses and startups create 70 percent of the jobs in the country, something the economy desperately needs right now. Among the six million small businesses scattered across the country – from soul food eateries to shoe repair shops – is Constantine Poulos’ International Foods business, a Burlington, Vt., based proprietorship that specializes in Greek olives and cheeses. With 12 employees and annual sales from $7 to $8 million, it’s no mom-and-pop operation, but Poulos has been in business long before the Mediterranean craze hit, and was an early adopter, so to speak, of garlic oil, hummus, and pita bread. “We put Feta cheese on the map in the U.S.,” says Poulos, who has been building relationships with distributors in Greece for years, to bring the country’s products to the U.S.
Poulos, who was born in Greece and came to the U.S. as a young boy, is known by friends and colleagues as the Olive Guy, and says that no matter what kind of business you want to start, whether plumbing, animal daycare, or antique dealer, the secret is to know your product and get advice from those already in the field. He holds up a large, black shiny kalamata olive as an example: “You need to know what region these come from; how to store them; the nutritional data; the uses in cooking, and on and on. There is a lot of education and information that needs to take place before you can go into any type of business.”
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has numerous resources for small business owners and has received $730 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help unlock the small business lending market and get capital flowing to America’s small businesses. “As a small business owner, you need to be ready for anything,” says Poulos, who says he’s weathering the recession OK, but remembers one particular crisis, when a port strike prevented shipments of olives from arriving, and his orders were delayed by 3-4 weeks. He was fortunate that he had enough surplus on hand to weather the delay, but says these are the kind of unexpected ups and downs to expect when running your own enterprise. “Sure, you need a business plan, but it should evolve as circumstances change, and you need to be flexible, whether the product is food or anything else.”
Q: You’ve had great success with olives; based on your experience, what are some other possible markets out there one could consider?
A: Wines are very big today, even though there are already many wines from all over the world already on the market. Selling wines takes a lot of time and legwork – you need wine testings and shows, for example, but if you have enthusiasm, time, and energy, I think this is one area that has potential.
Q: Where are your olives sold?
A: We supply major food distributors in several regions of the country, who in turn supply national and regional restaurant chains, supermarket salad bars, hotels and independent stores.
Q: How often do you travel to Greece?
A: I go once or twice a year, but I have longtime relationships with my suppliers, and know most of them on a personal basis. There’s a lot of trust between us.
Q: What’s the process of getting the olives to the U.S.?
A: Simply put, it starts with the supplier, and then you need to contract with ocean freight or shipping lines, as well as deal with custom brokers to cross borders. Once a delivery arrives, a trucker will go to the port and pick up the container. A trailer can have 11,000 small kegs of olives on it, 12 kilograms each.
Q: And what’s your favorite kind of olive?
A: I’d have to say the kalamata olive, because when you marinate it with oil and vinegar, and a little oregano and garlic, it has an outstanding flavor.
Q: And you get to eat all the olives you want?
A: Oh yes. People don’t call me the Olive Guy for nothing.