Tarpon Springs Greek Food Company Goes Viral
After perfecting a recipe known as 'Greek penicillin,' Michael Houllis' decision to mass produce the soup has proven to be a wise one.
With a family recipe, a can and a dream, Michael Houllis developed a company that has the potential to span many generations to come.
The business started out more as an experiment than anything. But Houllis' recipe for Greek chicken soup was too delicious to avoid demand.
Houllis is no stranger to the food industry or to Tarpon Springs.
His grandparents made their way to Tarpon from the Dodecanese Islands of Greece in 1915. Houllis' father, Manuel Houllis, retrieved the Epiphany cross in 1943.
"I'm born and raised Tarpon Springs," Houllis said.
Manuel Houllis opened Island House Restaurant on Clearwater Beach, where the family ran it for 30 years.
The family sold the establishment, but new owners were unable to keep the doors open. Just a year and a half after being sold, Island House closed.
A signature dish at the restaurant was the Greek chicken soup.
Customers and friends from Island House's following began to ask Houllis where and how they could purchase the soup, which is also known as "Greek penicillin" for its said-to-be healing properties.
"In Greek culture, as soon as our grandmothers would hear a sneeze, a pot would go on the stove," Houllis explained.
With 22 years of experience preparing the soup, Houllis entertained the thought of canning and selling it.
Along with some help from his brother-in-law, Barry LaChance, Houllis said they decided to go for it.
On the path to canned soup success, Houllis was faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to tweak the original recipe so that the fresh taste wouldn't be lost in the packaging process.
"It turns into egg-drop soup if you don't make it right," Houllis said. "It's a real tough soup to make."
Eventually, Houllis found a way to can the soup without losing its authenticity.
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At first, he kept his new business venture a secret, distributing small amounts to local grocers here and there.
With a twist of fate in 2008, Houllis' soup was tasted by the manager of a large retailer in Tarpon Springs. According to Houllis, the manager decided immediately that his store would carry It's Greek to Me Foods chicken soup.
Houllis wasn't as surprised by the demand as much as he was by the pace of the company's growth. Before he knew it, Houllis had major chains like Publix and Walgreens knocking on his door.
Currently, It's Greek to Me Foods chicken soup can be found on grocery store shelves in hundreds of locations and a handful of states.
What's interesting about Houllis' It's Greek to Me Foods is its ability to sell while remaining a single product. Currently, the Greek chicken soup is the only flavor of soup offered under the name.
The soup and its packaging are made entirely in the U.S.A., which is a plus according to Houllis. He said that with the state of the economy, it is important to keep his production as close to home as possible.
To satisfy the need for more variety, Houllis plans on releasing new flavors to the It's Greek to Me Foods line in the near future.
But for now, Houllis said that the "Greek penicillin" is enough to keep him on his toes.
"It's been a voyage," Houllis added with a smile.