George Kokos – Co-owner of Kalamata Grocery Store

‘I’ve been in the store ever since I could walk’

How long has Kalamata been open?

It was actually opened in ’65 but it wasn’t Kalamata. It spent a couple of years on the other corner where Michelangelo’s used to be. Then he bought the other corner where the Kalamata is now and moved it there in ’67.

At what point did you become involved?

When I was born 1410 Bier Haus used to be my parent’s restaurant in the ’70s; my father used to own that plus the grocery store. I was the dishwasher at the age of five and I’ve been in the store ever since I could walk. Back then parents either got daycare or the kids they sit in the store. I basically spent my whole life sitting in there.

Did you pick up a fair bit of Greek culture as a result?

It’s evolved over the years with the immigrants coming to Canada. If you go downtown to the Kalamata area you’re going to see a lot of Ethiopian and black influence that has come over. Years before that in the ’90s it was all the Eastern Europeans because of the Yugoslavian war. They moved in. Back in the ’50s and ’60s that was the Greek and Italian neighbourhood. Twenty-something years later the same families that lived across the street all lived in a different neighbourhood across the street from each other.

What is the square footage of the store?

I’ve never even known. Maybe 2000. The original store was a little more than half that size. There used to be a butcher store next door and about 30 years ago — because we didn’t have any room — my old man decided to knock the wall down and take over the butcher shop. It was big enough then but not anymore.

About how many different food products do you have in the store?

There’s got to be thousands. Easily. Originally we only brought imports from Greece. Now it’s gone from Greece to the former Yugoslavia to Bulgaria to Italy to North Africa to Iran to Iraq to Saudi Arabia.

Have you adjusted the imports that you’ve brought in as the ethnicity of the clientele shifted?

Like I told you more than 10 years ago was the influence of the former Yugoslavia as the country fell apart. Suppliers from Toronto and Vancouver showed up one day and said that I should carry this or that. Why do I need to carry mineral water? Who’s going to buy mineral water? I made the mistake of buying a case of this and that and seeing what happened. The next day some of the guys that hadn’t seen some of this stuff in a few years see this stuff. And it’s gone. One guy buys it all.

Now we have the influence of Africa and Ethiopia and all of those places. A guy asked me a number of years ago if I would think about carrying the Ethiopian bread. A lot of Ethiopians come to the store to buy cheese and olives. When the Africans left their countries they all went to Greece or Italy. Now they’re more into the food and the culture there. When they all come to Calgary they realize that down the street they can buy feta and olives that they used to buy there. Now I’m carrying their bread. All of a sudden I went from carrying 15 or 20 loaves of their bread a day to carrying 100 to 150. Over the years it’s evolved.

How many different kinds of olives do you sell?

Last time I looked there was 28.

Where do you import them from?

Ninety per cent of them are from Greece. Some come from Italy some come from Spain but most of the olives I bring in are from Greece.

Do you buy through a supplier in Canada or do you buy directly?

Basically I bring it out of Toronto Montreal and New York. They’re the major brokers. I could do it direct but the problem is I don’t have the proper licence where the Canadian government inspects your things. That’s why there’s a difference if you go through the massive brokers. I go direct to those guys and bring them straight in. People always tell me that you’re pretty cheap but it’s because the other stores have so many other middlemen. In town you can buy off of a warehouse but they bought off another guy who bought off the guys in Montreal and Toronto. We’ve been dealing with the same guys down East for 35 years. My father — who passed away years ago — started with some of those guys — who also passed away — but the name is good over there so it doesn’t matter what I want or how much I order I’m good for it.

How many cheeses do you have in the store?

I have eight different kinds of feta. I carry a whole bunch of cheese from Greece Bulgaria Poland and from Holland. There’s about 18 more cheeses other than feta.

I’ve heard around that Kalamata has really cheap cigarettes.

They’re the cheapest in the city.

How do you sell them for so cheap?

You know what? I really don’t make that much money. I do it basically because it brings in the customer. A lot of them just come in for that. Over the years those that buy cigarettes realize that they can pick up their milk and bread and this and that. They open their eyes and realize that they used to pay a lot more at another store but can buy the real thing here and actually pay less.

Years ago they opened a Co-op down the street from me. When it first opened it was called the Mediterranean Co-op. People were asking if I was really depressed with the store opening up as it was carrying cheeses and olives and could really hurt my business.

In actuality it helped my business. People would go there and buy a small container of olives and would come in to my store and see the prices. I heard from people that come into my store that they would go and buy a container of this stuff at the Co-op and the person behind them would say that they were kind of stupid and foolish to buy the stuff because they were overpaying. They would tell them to walk four blocks and get it for half the price. And it’s true.

It’s the same with the olives. If you go around and compare the olives at the delis at Co-op and Safeway our prices work out to almost half. At the larger stores they put it in lactic acid and stuff like that to preserve it: If you’re lactose intolerant you can’t eat an olive from the Co-op or Safeway or Superstore which is funny because a lot of people don’t know that.

I’ve heard that there’s sometimes lineups to get in the door.

That’s what I’m saying. There’s always a huge lineup. It’s a rarity when someone will come in and look around and say “This is the first time I’ve been in here in years and I haven’t had to wait.” It’s good and bad. Some people are OK with it and can wait for five minutes while other people just figure “screw this” or if they’ve never been around they just figure “why am I waiting?” when they can just go to Macs to buy their smokes. But they realize the next time that they spent two bucks more and they’ll wait the five minutes.

Have you ever had any thoughts of relocating to a bigger store?

We have and we own some other property down there but I’d probably get in trouble if I told you so.