Some weeks ago when I visited my Chinese friend and she randomly opened her pantry, it was impossible to miss three Greek ‘tsoureki’ stacked inside. I have to say, I was impressed and somewhat worried that the only friend that I could rely on for an excellent serve of dumplings, was going all Mediterranean. Then some days later while shopping in the supermarket, a somewhat similar scene unfolded. I saw an Asian couple stocking their trolley with a couple of ‘tsoureki’. I had to stop myself from asking the inappropriate, hence quite legitimate, question of why they preferred a ‘tsoureki’ instead of something more oriental. The last straw of my ‘tsoureki’ ridden winter days, came when I visited my neighbours of Aboriginal background, who along my coffee served ‘tsoureki’, ‘paximadia’ and ‘kourabiedes’ straight out of the Olympian bakery boxes. “Why?” I asked. “The Olympian bread is a must for our breakfasts,” they replied.
The realisation that Olympian bakery managed to introduce a traditional Greek delicacy into so many non-Greek households came later. The greater success of this Melbourne-based family business is that their brand has now replaced the name of the actual product itself. ‘Tsoureki’ is now called ‘Olympian bread’ and is a product, as the production numbers indicate, that enters more 10,000 households per week all over Australia.
Olympian Specialty Products last month celebrated their 20 year anniversary. Debbie Papadimitriou and her brother Iakovos Xanthopoulos started the business with just three products: ‘hilopites’, ‘traxana’ and ‘paximadia’ but their hard work and devotion to quality has seen the company grow, today producing a variety of 50 products.
Olympian Specialty Products are now found in almost all of Melbourne’s delis, not just the Greek one, and can also be found in Coles supermarkets around the country. In a few weeks, the famous Olympian bread will also be on the shelves of Woolworths supermarkets across the country.
Debbie and Iakovos started Olympian buying three lines of products from the then Olympic Bakery. These were established products but their hit success came to be their ‘tsoureki’.
“It was a very difficult product. It really took a lot of hard work to perfect it. We threw away tens of kilos of dough. At the start we made it once a year as a traditional sweet for the Easter season,” explains Debbie, revealing how sharp business acumen and hard work paired with the passion of these two entrepreneurs turned the production of 20 mere ‘tsourekia’ a day 10 years ago to 2,000 a day as we speak.
“You talk to your customers, you listen to them and you learn from them,” says Debbie. “Our customers started to ask for it even after the Easter season. So we started to increase our production slowly. It was important to be a slow process. We did it step-by-step, creating simultaneously new Greek traditional products, always free of preservatives. Quality is synonymous with our products and we didn’t want to lose the trust we established through quality with our customers,” she adds.
She explains that this contact with her clients is also the source of her ideas.
“The other day I was talking to the manager of a well-known chain of Greek grocery stores here in Melbourne. He explained to me why the Olympian biscuits are a standard product in his family’s pantry. It is a sweet treat his children eat every night and he chooses them because they have no preservatives. After this conversation my mind was on overdrive. That is how I came up with the idea of baby biscuits and carob biscuits, a healthy and nutritious addition to our classic product.”
For Debbie the 14 to 18 hours of hard work each day, including some weekends especially during the Easter season, is fun, believe it of not.
“I’m lucky so far, I’ve never had to work,” she says “I never regarded what I am doing as a job. It’s my passion.”
CONFIDENCE IN MUM’S TASTES
Olympian’s success is not based solely on the professionalism, deep relationship of trust between Olympian and its customers and constant vigilance of the two siblings and owners to new market trends. It is also based on the power of aromas and flavours it evokes from our childhood memories and our mothers’ dishes. We all long for our mums’ food. The flavours and smells live in Olympian’s products and that is proven by the increasing demand for products that some thought would die out as the first generation of Greek migrants diminish in numbers. Olympian though is proving otherwise.
“We were under the impression that the demand for products like ‘trahanas’, ‘hilopites’ and ‘paximadia’ will slowly decline. We are seeing the opposite though and what we hear from our younger costumers is that they love these products and use them in their diet and their family’s diet because they grew up with them,” confirms Debbie.
“This is very positive for us because the appetite of our customers marries with traditional flavours, which is our trademark, with our commitment to pass it on to future generations. The new products we create are based on the traditional and our consumers vote with their feet.”
TRADITIONAL TO THE CORE
Tradition does not define just the flavours of Olympian’s products; it is a basic element of the professional philosophy of this family business.
I ask Debbie about her relationship with her staff, which has grown from a handful of people in their early years to over 20 permanent staff today.
“We’re a family business. That says it all I think. You don’t want to hurt your family. Our staff are part of the Olympian family. We have been talking all this time about Olympian’s successes, but we wouldn’t have been able to build what we built if we didn’t have good staff. We owe a lot to our workforce. We care for and respect them and this is reciprocal. We still have employees who have been with us since we started. We trust them and they trust us and that is priceless.”
From the Olympian family we go to the families of Debbie and Iakovos who she hopes, without saying it out loudly, will be the next generation of ‘Olympians’.
“We hope that Olympian and Greek flavours will continue for many more years,” says Debbie, adding that during the school holidays the bakery is enriched with some less experienced, but certainly “valuable” employees: their offspring.
“That’s how I started; working alongside my dad during school holidays at Olympic Bakery. I enjoyed it, because I was creating something. I studied Economics, I started working at the bank but I couldn’t find my passion there. At 23, I returned to the aromatic world of traditional flavours, starting Olympian. No-one knows what the future holds. I hope our love and dedication for Olympian will inspire our children too.”