Notes from the field: Two Americans in post-crisis Greece

Just two months ago, Greece celebrated Bailout Exit Day. Some 9 years after the country was plunged into a debt crisis and nearly exited the Euro zone, the region’s most heavily indebted country thinks it’s ready to stay on a path of solvency. But what does being bailout-free really mean for the Greek economy, and does it really mark the end of the crisis?

“This is a historic moment. This is a new page, a new chapter. I’m quite optimistic, and I’m sure that we will be successful,” Constantine Michalos, head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, recently said. In fact, according to Marketplace from American Public Media, the Greek “...economy, having shrunk by more than a quarter since 2010, is now growing at almost 2 percent a year”.

To find some answers, we sent Tolmee Co-Founder, Christos, his wife, Mirsini, and their twins out to do some field research, with a mandate to come back chock full of briefings, interview notes, and analysis for assessment. (Ok, fine, it was a much-needed extended vacation and they were visiting family.) “Bring home your impressions of business in Greece. I’d like to hear about some bright spots,” I said. Here are a couple of their most important observations.

Fish that eat dead skin off your feet

Gross or clever business idea? We’ll let you judge. The popular international spa sensation has come to Greece. Should you take the plunge, you’ll pay someone to allow little Doctor fish to eat dead skin cells off your feet. The fish (garra rufa) will nibble at your feet as long as you can tolerate it.  According to Christos, “It tickles. It’s weird. It works.” Try it if you dare, but you have to admit, it’s certainly a unique way to make a living.

Lest we dive too deeply into foot hygiene, we should underscore that one eccentric business idea doesn’t make a vibrant business community. Flesh-eating fish aside, unique and creative business ideas abound in today’s Greece, and are an important part of the growth story. 

Waste not, want not

In economic downswings people will consciously conserve valuable resources. In fact, finding value in items that might previously have been jettisoned in better economic times is core to re-cycling. Enter Upcycling, also known as Creative re-use. A quick Google Trends check shows a marked uptick in “upcycle” searches starting with the 2008 Global economic downturn.  Its traction as a Google Shopping term is demonstrated by its elevated and steady appearance in search results since 2016. There are multiple online resources that can inspire us to re-use or upcycle, such as our friends at Happy DIY Home who compiled a list of 17 wonderful repurposing ideas. 

“Our direct experience with Greek upcycling ingenuity started with 3Quarters Design” Christo said. Committed to finding a new use for Greek sunshades, the design team at 3Quarters leapt into action. They conceive, design and hand make one-of-a-kind backpacks, purses and messenger bags from sunshades. These sunshades, called ‘tentes’ in Greek, are ubiquitous in Greek cities and villages, adorning porches and protecting homes from the hot sun. Mirsini says, “We couldn’t resist travelling with the Sunny Upcycled large tote bag to the beach.  It fit gear and wet swimsuits for two adults and two kids”.

Service with a smile

Remembering my many trips to Greece throughout the ‘90s, I recall seeing more stray dogs lingering around restaurants than helpful waiters. Americans are accustomed to great customer service, since most restaurants realize they are among stiff competition for dining dollars—but this has not historically been the case in Greece (or in many other parts of Europe). My recollection is that Greek waiters were like very fast and always fleeing away from our table. I found it exhausting to even ask for service.  “Absolutely not so anymore!” Christo’s voice raised animatedly during our chat. “Our last trip to the beach restaurant was brilliant and relaxed. Everywhere we looked, young friendly Greek waitstaff were speaking excellent English with tourists. They laid out everything beautifully. Chairs were neat and orderly, there was free water and attendant waitstaff everywhere. It’s as if I had come home to another country in some ways.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog that tourism is a critical piece of the Greek economy. In 2017, it represented nearly 20% of total gross domestic product (GDP) – aside from a dip during the 2010-2012 crisis period, it has steadily trended up over the past two decades. The hope is that this will continue to represent a critical and growing contribution to the overall Greek economic picture. And the key takeaway from Christos is that improved customer service can have a measurable impact on tourism, helping Greece compete against other Mediterranean countries. In fact, Gartner research shows that “ competition and buyer empowerment compounds, customer experience itself is proving to be the only truly durable competitive advantage.”

Christos’ Key takeaway

Christos & Co. saw a number of new business ventures offering meaningfully unique products and services in the post-crisis environment. Tying it all together, Christos thinks, is business innovation and change. Like Mr. Michalos at the Athens Chamber of Commerce, we take heart and are encouraged.

In our opinion, Greece’s economic challenges today are never exactly the same as yesterday’s. Therefore, Heraclitus’ thoughts on the power of change ring especially true to us. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” 

At Tolmee, we encourage you to be bold and experience Greece for yourself if you can. If you do go, we'd love to hear from you. Email us at

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