“A half pound of feta, please,” says a middle aged shopper at Mediterranean Foods, on a corner of 35th Street in Astoria.
The man behind the counter pulls out a creamy white block of cheese, measures it carefully, and drops it into a quart container filled with water. The container goes in a plastic bag, which gets sealed with a twist tie. The feta customer takes it, then makes way for the next customer, who wants a quarter pound of kefalograviera, a hard yellow cheese.
This a typical scene at Mediterranean Foods, where shelves are filled with coffee, honey, frozen phyllo and more, imported from Greece and elsewhere in Europe. Shoppers can choose from more than a dozen types of feta, browse the many choices at the robust olive bar, and sample a broad selection at the olive oil tasting station.
“When people first try feta, often it’s restaurant feta or Costco feta, cheaper quality,” said manager Tommy Tentolouris, the son of Mediterranean’s owner, Bill Tentolouris. “Then, when they come in here and try our fetas, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’ You’ll never shop for it at a supermarket again.”
Mediterranean has to count on winning converts to its Greek goods. When the original Mediterranean Foods store opened in Astoria in 1974, more than 12,500 Greeks lived in the Queens neighborhood, according to U.S. Census data. As of 2013, only 7,512 claimed residency.
“About 60 percent of our customers are Greek,” said. Tommy Tentolouris “And we have a lot of people from the outer boroughs, people who moved away who come back to do their shopping.”
The 35th street store, which opened just last month, is Astoria’s third Mediterranean Foods outlet.
The new store opened up just three blocks away from store number two, raising the question: why were two locations needed in such close proximity –especially when the core Greek clientele is shrinking?
Tentoulouris explained that the lease for the second store expires in a year. When it does, that store will close and the staff will move to the new 35th Street outlet.
But the new store also offers more space, and Tentoulouris says it’s needed because business comes from well beyond Astoria Greek community. Jackie Tina, a Westchester resident, says there are no Greek specialty stores near her current home. So she does her Greek shopping when she comes into the city to visit her mother.
“I feel like I’m in Greece with the selection they have,” she said during a recent shopping trip to Mediterranean Foods. “Every time my Mom comes up to see me, I put in a request for things like pita bread and feta cheese.”
Irene Kokenos commutes even further, from Connecticut, to shop at Mediterranean Foods every couple of months. She’s been a customer for at least 10 years.
“They have everything I need,” said Kokenos. “I can do all the shopping at once and be set for a while before I need to pay my next visit.”
In the decades since Mediterranean Foods opened, rival Greek supermarkets have popped up in Astoria, though Tentolouris claims they haven’t hurt his business.
“It’s our prices,” he said. “The big guy [his father] sets them well. And it’s family-oriented…we have no partners.”
Many of Mediterranean Foods’ employees have been working for the family for decades. Demetri Pinos has been manager of the original store for 35 years. When the business first began, “you couldn’t find the variety you have today like ouzo candy, the variety in cheese from goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, olive oil from four or five different places,” he said. “But we expand every day because the customers are asking for it.”
With Christmas coming up, Tentoulouris says his stores get packed with Greeks stocking up on traditional foods like Christopsoumo (Christmas bread) and kourambiedes (sugared shortbread cookies).
“Give a Greek a party and it’s on, meaning there’s a whole lot of food,” he said. This is the first Christmas for the new store, but Tentoulouris believes it will do strong sales this season. “I’m hoping mayhem,” he joked.