Expresco sticks it to its customers
Company grew by selling "meat-on-a-stick," to festivals, restaurants and grocers

Almost all university students do some kind of part-time work to get extra money. But Dennis Papakostas, took the idea a step further. Instead of taking a menial service job that would give him limited experience, he decided to start his own company.

As is the case with many young entrepreneurs, family played a big role in his decision. "My father was on the organizing committee for a Greek festival, and they couldn't find anyone to cut and prepare the meat so he asked me if I wanted to do it," Papakostas said. "But after the festival, a bell went off in my head, and I realized that there might be a good opportunity here."

So while other students were lining up to get into beer bashes, in 1986, when he was just 20, Papakostas invested $5,000 to buy a vacuum packing machine, fridge and walk-in freezer and founded Express Souvlaki in a 400 square-foot Park Extension store front.

At first, Papakostas was a jack-of-all trades. He had a couple of plant employees, but did most of what was left over himself including sales and administrative work. He even occasionally jumped into his Honda Civic to do deliveries.

Sales grew rapidly almost from the start, and soon Papakostas began to branch out beyond the Greek festival market. Once day while in the Concordia University cafeteria, he began to wonder how the organization got its meat, so he approached foodservice company that ran the operation. Soon his products could be found in cafeterias in universities, hospitals, and major businesses around Montreal.

When Papakostas graduated with his political science degree in 1989, he was able to devote himself fulltime to the business. He changed the company name to Expresco to reflect the fact that its product line moved beyond just Souvlaki, but now included a broad range of portion controlled "meat-on-a-stick," including chicken beef and pork. The company also manufactures private label products and managed to land contracts for Loblaws' coveted President's Choice line.

Production is now consolidated in a state-of the art 20,000 square foot TMR manufacturing facility, and needless to say Papakostas doesn't drive that Honda Civic anymore. He's modest about his success, and won't talk about his current car, but let's just say the high-end German luxury SUV industry is well represented on Expresco's parking lot.

It's one of the few overt signs of the company's rapid ascent in the prepared and frozen foods industry. Sales jumped to more than $15 million last year, the result of several years of annual growth in excess of 20 per cent, a trend that according to Papakostas is likely to continue for at least through 2003.

But according to George Tiritidis, a chartered accountant, who joined the Expresco five years ago to beef up the management team, food preparation equipment and plant infrastructure is very expensive and the company reinvests most of its profits into manufacturing.

Expresco's quality is a big selling point and Papakostas made a considerable investment when he decided to operate within Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certification, which provides customers assurance that rigorous food production standards are met.

According to one long-time customer, Expresco's quality, distribution network and the flexibility the company offers, are the key secrets driving its success.

"We have 162 locations in Canada and the U.S., and our souvlaki products are made to house specifications. So we can't deal with just anybody," said John Sotiriadis, president of Pita Pit, a chain of franchised restaurants, which buys between close to $5 million worth of Expresco products each year. "(They) have a good distribution network, which parallels many of our outlets and their plant operations are professionally run."

This fall Papakostas plans to build on the company's success by introducing its own line of beef, chicken and pork skewers, which will be sold under the Expresco brand. Earlier this year he contracted out packaging design and production and salesmen are currently on the road pushing the product to the grocery chains.

According to Jerry Tutunjian, editor of Canadian Grocer magazine, the move is a timely one, which stands a good chance of meeting with a positive reception.

"The average Canadian housewife spends maybe 15 or 20 minutes preparing a meal, and she doesn't have time to play around," said Tutunjian. "So products that save, such as prepared vegetables are doing well at the retail level."

But parents aren't the only ones with limited time on their hands. Expresco has also began marketing cooked skewers to restaurants, which employees can simply heat up in a microwave and serve directly to customers. The program has been highly successful, and in a few short years now comprises about 20 per cent of sales, a total that according to Papakostas could rise to 30 per cent in the near future.

 

 

 

Photo caption: According to Dennis Papakostas, the "meat on a stick" products that Expresco Foods manufactures are becoming increasingly popular, because people don't have time to prepare meat themselves.

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Dennis Papakostas got into the food preparation business by making meat skewers for Greek festivals while still in college.
o He started small, with a $5,000 investment, operating out of a 400 square foot storefront in Park Extension, but quickly branched out by selling to food service companies that operate in hospitals, universities and corporate cafeterias, as well as doing private label production for grocers such as Loblaws.
o The company operates within Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certification, which provides customers assurance that rigorous food production standards are met. Most profits are reinvested to broaden capacity and improve productivity.
o Expresco has also began marketing cooked foods to restaurants which can be heated up in a microwave and served to clients. This fall Expresco will branch out by launching its own line of prepared chicken, beef and pork skewers.

 

 

Peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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