–by Dan Lemke
Americans love cheese. In fact, the USDA says U.S. cheese consumption is up 42 percent in the past 25 years. The average American consumes more than 33 pounds of cheese each year, still less than half of the nearly 72 pounds per year consumed by people in Greece and nearly 53 pounds by the French.
Cheddar is still by far the best selling cheese in the U.S., but specialty and artisan cheeses are very popular, especially with millennial consumers.
“U.S. cheese consumption is at an all-time high and evolving,” says Donna O’Connor, AURI food and nutrition scientist. “One emerging trend is that consumers are reaching for artisan cheeses at a rapidly increasing pace.”
Two Minnesota entrepreneurs are more than happy to contribute to that growth with some unique, locally produced offerings.
Antigone’s Greek Foods
Antigone “Toni” Bazakos grew up in a small village in southern Greece, a region famous for its Kalamata olives, olive oil and dairy products. She moved to Minnesota to finish high school and later attended the University of Minnesota to get her education degree. While there, she met her future husband, Michael, and has called the Gopher State home ever since.
Bazakos loves to cook and loves the traditional Mediterranean diet, full of taste, utilizing simple ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, dairy products, greens and grains.
“When I raised my kids in the 1970s, it was hard to find ingredients,” Bazakos says. For more than three generations, her family has developed healthy recipes based on the Mediterranean staples. “I raised my family based on what I knew. Now that the kids are grown, I decided to provide these foods for people who might like them.”
In 2012, Bazakos launched Antigone’s Greek Foods, producing handcrafted feta cheese dips and spreads that are free of the hormone rBST. Antigone’s currently offers a Greek Feta Dip made with a hint of mint and garlic, as well as a spicier Chipotle Feta Dip. She also makes a Kalamata olive spread with walnuts that is naturally vegan. The products are versatile and can be used as spreads and dips, in pasta salads, or as appetizers.
Bazakos worked with AURI’s food science staff on product development, nutritional labeling, shelf-life testing and more. She operates her business at an incubator kitchen in south Minneapolis where she is producing her family’s favorite recipes.
Even though Bazakos utilizes a commercial kitchen, the products are all handcrafted. She does everything herself, including filling containers. It’s a fitting approach for her products.
“I want to produce good, simple products with healthy ingredients,” Bazakos says.
Antigone’s Greek Foods offerings are finding a strong reception in the marketplace. Products are currently available in more than two dozen Minnesota and Midwest Region food co-ops, whole foods stores and small grocery chains.
This wider distribution and growth has Bazakos looking to expand her business to the next step.
“I’ve put my heart into the lifelong practice of my family’s traditions, and now here is the opportunity to share some of those traditions with others, too,” Bazakos adds with a smile.
AURI and Antigone’s Foods
Idea to reality:
Toni Bazakos wanted to market feta cheese-based spreads and dips.
Scientific staff Donna O’Connor, Ranae Jorgenson and Charan Wadhawan provided nutrition facts labeling, lab analysis, product stability reformulation and shelf-life testing.
Antigone’s Greek Foods are part of a growing artisan cheese segment and are now in 27 retail outlets. Product information can be found at myantigone.com.
Philia Foods owner Mike Rakes knows he’s gotten more than he bargained for with his exciting entrepreneurial venture. Before he began his foray into running a business, Rakes worked in the corporate world of finance and accounting.
“I loved the people; I just didn’t love the work,” Rakes admits.
Rakes was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and began studying entrepreneurship and business. He did a micro-level business concept project marketing a traditional Greek spread recipe his sister
In 2012, he marketed the spicy feta spread at the Linden Hills Farmers Market during the summer as a hobby. The enthusiastic reception he received prompted him to ramp things up.
Rakes began working the business full time in 2014. He now has products in more than 70 Twin Cities area outlets.
“This really started as a pipe dream and all of a sudden people wanted my product so I decided to give it to them,” he says.
The Philia Foods name comes from the Greek root word for community love or friendship. Rakes, who is also Greek, is leaning on love of good food and personal connection to drive his business. His initial product offering was a common Greek restaurant appetizer, not usually found in stores.
Philia Foods currently produces and markets four spreads made with cow’s milk feta cheese:
- Spicy Feta Spread,
made with roasted red peppers;
- Savory Feta Spread,
featuring basil and rosemary;
- Zesty Feta Spread,
with cucumber and dill; and
- Fiery Feta Spread,
blended with habanero peppers.
Rakes received assistance from AURI’s food science staff on nutrition facts labeling, as well as formulation review and a copacker list. He makes use of a commercial kitchen to produce his spreads.
Currently, Philia Foods products are available in all Twin Cities Kowalski’s, Lund’s & Byerly’s stores and numerous food co-ops around the metro area. But if Mike Rakes has his way, there will be more retail outlets to come.
“To be honest, this has been more than I imagined when I started in the summer of 2012,” Rakes says. “I thought it would be awesome if one grocer wanted it. Now that it’s in 70, I can’t wait to get to 700.”
AURI and Philia Foods
Idea to reality:
Mike Rakes took a family recipe from an entrepreneurship project to a commercial reality.
Food scientist Donna O’Connor provided nutrition facts labeling, product stability review, technical consulting and a list of copackers for the feta-based products.
Philia Foods feta spreads are now in more than 70 Minnesota outlets, creating another market for locally-produced cheese. More information can be found at philiafoods.com.