Peter, Nicole, Bill and Elyce Mouskondis on the floor of the Nicholas & Co. warehouse in Salt Lake City.
Philotimo. That’s a word you don’t find in many business plans. The Greek word, difficult to translate into English, means “love of honor” or “the inclination to do good” or “love for family, community and country.” It’s central to the success of Nicholas & Co., the Salt Lake City-based food supply and service company owned and run by the Mouskondis family for three generations.
“All companies have to create their culture,” says President Peter Mouskondis. “That Greek word is the basis of our business. To perpetuate, we need to build trust.”
The land of opportunity is a land of entrepreneurs. The story of an immigrant who comes to this country and builds a business by determination, hard work and good ideas is a classic American tale. Equally classic is the fracturing and failure of that business in subsequent generations. Family businesses are often dragged down by nepotism, or worse, wayward descendants. But Nicholas & Co., now under its third generation of family ownership, is dominant in the market against national competitors, and its future looks brighter than ever.
Perhaps philotimo is part of the reason.
In 1907, Peter’s grandfather, Nicholas William Mouskondis, left his home in Crete, Greece, with an eighth grade education, no knowledge of English and a sign on his back reading “Utah.” He started his business by collecting discarded cans from the train cars at the station. He and his family would re-label the cans and sell the goods to customers on his bread route.
Now, Nicholas & Co. is housed in a 12-million-cubic-foot facility, employs more than 500 people, owns a fleet of more than 100 trucks and trailers and sells more than 10,000 products. Aside from selling and delivering groceries to more than 3,500 restaurants and businesses in five states, Nicholas & Co. provides tools and advice: inventory tracking systems, menu development and engineering tools, training in food safety (offered in English and Spanish), marketing support and service, kitchen, wine and hospitality training. They even have a secret shopper program that sends out anonymous Nicholas assessors to critique food and service so a restaurant can improve with friendly advice, rather than that of restaurant critics.
Mikell Trapp, owner of the Trio group of restaurants, has been working with Peter Mouskondis since Trapp was a chef at Stein Eriksen in 1993. “Nicholas’ customer service is second to none in the Salt Lake market,” he says. “Part of the reason is that Peter wasn’t just handed the business on a platter by his father. He’s worked in every job in his business, so he has respect and understanding for each one.”
It’s often a salesman’s pitch when a food purveyor offers to partner with its clients, not to push product, but Trapp says at Nicholas they really mean it. “If you need help on a super-busy Friday night or on a huge catering project, they’ll send a chef to help out,” Trapp notes. “That’s amazing in today’s business climate.”
William “Bill” Mouskondis, who grew up in the business with his father the founder and with his wife, Elyce, expanded the business from the foundation Nicholas Mouskondis had set. He built the customer base past Salt Lake City, including franchisees of national names like Burger King, iconic local chains like Iceberg, Chuck-A-Rama and Arctic Circle as well as the new, high-end independent restaurants that opened. He moved the operation into larger facilities and with great foresight, he put an emphasis on technology, investing in computers for the delivery fleet and laptops for the street sales team—the first food service distributor to do so. In 2004, the Utah Restaurant Association presented Bill Mouskondis with its Lifetime Achievement Award, an unusual honor for a non-restaurateur.
But one of the most important things Bill and Elyce accomplished was the successful transfer of company authority and management to their son and daughter-in-law, Peter and Nicole.
“Peter loved the business from when he was a child,” recalls his mother. “He used to go with Bill to conventions, he got to know all his dad’s peers and everyone in the business. That’s how he came to understand the importance of relationships.”
“And there’s always the personal touch in the hospitality business,” Bill explains.
Typical for the Mouskondis family, when it came time to be interviewed for this story, the entire family, including Bill and Elyce’s daughter Marcella, who lives in Texas, gathered around a table in the company office. The frankness, courtesy and general good humor of the conversation would be rare in any modern family, let alone one that works together day in and day out. Together, they discussed what makes Nicholas & Co. work.
“When I started working here 18 years ago, there was a question on everyone’s mind: What’s going to happen here? Will this business be perpetuated? Or will they sell out to the competition, a national food distributor?” says Nicole. “When I came on board, I saw a future, a culture to be continued.”
“But Bill and Elyce really let us learn in the best way,” she continues. “We made decisions that Bill advised against. Sometimes he was right, but sometimes we were right, and that’s the only way to understand your business. He allowed us to make mistakes, but was there to prevent any disasters.”
“Families are long-term,” says Peter. “So is our family business.”
Peter and Nicole didn’t just succeed to management; they inherited friendships and a legacy of relationships with customers, employees and community.
“We want to emphasize the value of local companies,” says Peter. “We got tired of seeing local companies marginalized by big businesses who only have their eye on the short-term dollar.” Small start-up companies are more trouble to deal with than larger, established ones. They can’t supply as many people and they may not have the right systems in place or understand labor laws. Part of Nicholas & Co.’s mission is to help these companies grow.
“Community involvement keeps us in touch with what our customers and their customers are interested in,” says Nicole. “Peter serves on Gov. Gary Herbert’s Consumer Advisory Board. We’re involved in Utah’s Own. We have to live in this society. We have a place in this economy.”
The company’s support of smaller local food producers and farmers has earned loyalty, especially among independent restaurants. “We moved all our business to Nicholas & Co. because of the local angle,” says Trapp.
Support of the community means support of individuals, too. This is a company that remembers where it came from. When Jorge Fierro, founder of Rico Brand foods, first came to Utah, he spoke virtually no English, much like Nicholas Mouskandis. “I was taking English as a second language and looking for a job,” recalls Fierro. “I had warehouse experience in Mexico so the agency sent me to Peter Mouskondis, and he and his mother gave me a job. When I wanted to apply for permanent residency, they wrote a letter saying I had full-time employment in the U.S. I think they could relate because of the grandfather. I met him once—he was old and in a wheelchair. But he may be one of the reasons I was inspired to go into food business. I thought, if he could do it, maybe I could.”
That was 26 years ago. Now Fierro works with Nicholas & Co. to supply Rico products sized to sell to restaurants.
“Our grandfather Nicholas said, all you have is your name when you leave this earth,” recalls Marcella. “When you lay your head on the pillow at night, you want to feel like you’ve done your best by everyone.”