Solving the Greek Debt Crisis With Honey and Skin-Care Products

In a ritzy neighborhood in central Athens, one company hopes to change Greece's economy and society through holistic health.

National Journal

ATHENS — Some fight debt crises with austerity. Others fight them with luxury beauty products.

In the upscale Kolonaki district in central Athens sits a five-story, all-organic beauty store called Apivita, complete with a spa, library, hair salon, garden, pharmacy, and juice bar — a truly surreal sight after witnessing the devastating effects of the financial crisis in Greece. Royal jelly and carrot juice are not things people usually associate with an impoverished population.

On the last day of a media tour by the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, I visited the high-end store. Through large iron doors inscribed with bees and flowers in this neoclassical building, customers are greeted with a "hospitality table": dripping golden honey with the honeycombs still in it, dried apricots, almonds, walnuts, dates, and mountain tea. It's a common platter at a beekeeper's home in Greece, and one that owner Nikos Koutsianas (a beekeeper himself) would present to visitors of his pharmacy. Honey, considered an ancient medicine here, is found in most of the store's products, sourced from Apivita's 300 local beehives.

(Matt Vasilogambros)An olive tree towers through the open ceiling, peering into the second floor. The walls are lined with organic products ranging from facial masks to shampoos to cologne. This store has been open for three weeks, the first of its kind.

Owners and employees of Apivita passionately proselytize their belief that the crisis that left the Greek economy in shambles is not one of simple economics, but also a crisis of conscience.

"It's not just an economic crisis," Tassos Choukalas, the head of sustainability, tells me. "The real reason this is happening is more of a crisis of ethical values, a crisis of not-so-ethical business, a crisis of society, an environmental crisis."

So, what does this have to do with skin care made with honey? While the average Greek lists a litany of reasons for the country's suffering — the old political system, the European Union, the Germans, even the Greeks themselves — Choukalas says this store offers customers a new way of living and thinking, which could in turn inspire improvements in the economy and society.

At the root of this belief are the teachings and philosophies of the ancient physician Hippocrates. The company proudly displays his sayings, such as, "Everything in excess is opposed to nature," and, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."

(Matt Vasilogambros)A library has reading materials on healthy living. A pharmacist can tailor-make skin products for different ailments. A juice bar sells organic smoothies and advice for diets. A salon uses hair products made with Greek honey and herbs.

"People are depressed. People are down. They're worried. They're stressed," adds Eugenia Bozou, the corporate-affairs director, as the smell of jasmine candles and rosemary fill the room. "So, this is something positive."

The crisis is an opportunity for the company, the employees say. And though most Greeks remain cash-strapped, it doesn't deter Apivita from continuing its expansion.

Since the crisis started four years ago, the company has, in fact, grown. It is expected to sell more than $46 million in product, almost $7 million above last year. It maintains a staff of 221 employees in Greece and over 300 globally, hiring throughout the crisis. Its 320 different products are sold in places like Hong Kong and Singapore and Spain and Ukraine, and in over 6,000 pharmacies throughout Greece. And the company's use of Greek raw materials promotes the country's agricultural sector.

"Sure, we're in a crisis, but every euro that people spend, they need to feel that they're getting something that's more valuable," continues Choukalas, a confident and well-spoken man, whose long curly gray hair fits with the aura of the store. "When it comes to your health, you should not think so much about money."

While the store sits prominently in the traditionally well-off neighborhood of the Greek capital, Bozou admits that this "posh" part of town is not as strong as it once was — traffic from cabs is down, there are fewer people dining in the best restaurants, and crowds are smaller on the weekends. By investing in the neighborhood, however, she thinks the store can give something back to society. "It's an investment in this area," she says.

It's only fitting that a Greek company would look to the teachings of Hippocrates. Greeks are proud of their ancient history. "It is time again to teach about the values and about civilization," Koutsianas says in his limited English.

And who better to use as their model than the man who gave basic values to civilization some 2,500 years ago in this country.