THEO PANAYIDES meets the man behind a new venture brining simplified cooking from a community of small farmers to people tired of fakeness, looking for something real
Yiannis Tryfon is one of the good guys. He doesn’t save lives, admittedly; he’s not curing cancer. He’s actually (of all things) in the food industry – albeit with a sideline in music – formerly as one of the founders of Get Fresh in Nicosia and now, with five other partners, at the helm of a new project called Misfit Union. Still, his attitude is admirable. “Generally, I think the way to do business today is to create a positive impact,” he tells me. “It can’t be about the money, it’s got to be about the impact… Create the impact, and everything else will follow.”
‘Impact’ means social and environmental impact – though also a more intangible aim, creating something “real” as he puts it. It sounds a bit worthy, but Yiannis himself is no Greta Thunberg; he doesn’t rant, or point me to useful websites (except his own, misfitunion.com). He’s 45, tall and lean (he used to be heavier, but lost 20 kilos by cutting out sugar and processed foods), with a greying beard, thick glasses and a chummy, relaxed way of speaking. He rolls out the marketing spiel on the new project, of course – but also talks easily about his recent divorce, the future of the world (spoiler: it’s grim), young people today, rising extremism in schools, his new music project with Zilla Project drummer Stefanos Meletiou, and of course quinoa which he and Get Fresh co-founder Demetri Iouliou were probably the first to bring to Cyprus.
Get Fresh, founded in 2008, was new at the time – a Cyprus version of the salads-and-sandwiches Pret A Manger model, with a few local tweaks and an emphasis on superfoods (hello, quinoa!) and healthy options. All the food left over at the end of each day was given to a children’s home, “that way we knew our waste would not go to waste”. That’s what he means by social impact – and he also recalls, for instance, getting a call from the welfare office about a woman in Strovolos who didn’t even have money to go to their office in Aglandjia and pick up her cheque, “so we needed to take her food, because she was – well, she was starving… This is the thing, we live in a society where we think everything is hunky-dory. And we don’t realise there are people in serious need”.
Supermarkets don’t know what to do with expired or surplus food. Most of them won’t even sell squashed or misshapen tomatoes at a lower price for tomato sauce, let alone make the sauce themselves. (This, he believes, is “the future of grocery selling”, every supermarket with a kitchen at the back to process the leftovers.) Waste gets returned to suppliers, and ends up in landfills; it’s a grossly inefficient system. But an even bigger problem is food waste from consumers themselves, specifically from the back of their fridge – which is how we get to Misfit Union.
The concept itself is a little tricky. “The simplest way to explain it is ‘Ready meals deconstructed’,” offers Yiannis – but of course that doesn’t really explain very much. “We’re having a bit of a hard time trying to pass the message,” he admits later. “It’s like having this huge idea and trying to push it through a keyhole, you know?”
The idea is actually a hybrid, merging two things that don’t ordinarily fit together (hence… misfit union), supermarket shopping and fast-food delivery. Let’s begin with the ‘impact’, in this case environmental impact – the question of waste. Say you decide to cook Asian tonight, says Yiannis, so you’ll go to the supermarket and pick up ingredients, garlic and spices and jars of sauces. You might use them once – then they’ll sit in your fridge or on your shelf for ages, till they expire or spoil and you throw them away. But what if, instead of over-shopping, you shopped just enough for one meal?
This, more or less, is his concept. The customer orders online from over 100 products, from pre-cooked chicken to vegetables, pasta, sauces, snacks and so on. The ingredients are delivered within an hour (only in Nicosia at the moment, though the concept is “easily copy-pastable”) and can be turned into a meal – with some quick stir-frying, say – in about three minutes. It’s simplified home cooking, or perhaps customised fast food – and of course their chicken is slow-cooked and free-range, and the snacks are healthy (they include things like Beet Veggie Bites, “herbal little bites filled with beet and dill”) and the sauces aren’t your average sauces: caramelised onion chutney is made with commandaria and grape syrup, sweet choco nut butter is Nutella-ish and pungent with hazelnut. Everything is made in small batches, and expires in days rather than months. “The guys inside, they know what I stand for and they stand for the same things,” says Yiannis, waving a hand in the direction of the kitchen; “And it’s very simple things”. Not using too much salt, for instance, or not using corn flour to thicken soups artificially. “I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in the restaurant business, and I’d like to stay that way. I don’t want to fall into the trickery of trying to pull fast ones on customers.”
‘The guys inside’ are actually only two people, three when you include Yiannis himself. “A half-Cypriot-half-Canadian, with a Nepalese and a Romanian who came up with all these amazing products,” is how he describes the operation – the Canadian part being his mum, the daughter of a military attaché who accompanied her father to Cyprus in 1963 and met the local merchant who became her husband. The name Misfit Union refers to the concept, not the people – but it’s hard not to sense a certain resonance.
Take, for instance, “our egg guy”, a former lawyer named Michalis who moved to Australia, moved back to Avgorou, his father’s village – though he still looks like “an Australian surf dude” – and now has 800 chickens, feeding them frozen pumpkin in August (to cool them down) among other unorthodox ruses. Or take Mr Stelios from Kissonerga (Yiannis found him at the fruit and vegetable market) who delivers fresh produce from farmers in the Paphos area, or Mr Michalis from Peristerona who does the same in his own area. Take Eftyhios the 30-something, who “said ‘The hell with this crap’” and is now growing “beyond-organic” veg up in Katydata. “He’s also part of this union.”
This is where we get to the more intangible aim, building a community as well as a money-making enterprise. Hippy-dippy stuff, scoff the cynics – but it’s not just a question of virtue (or virtue signalling), it’s also good business. The world is changing, notes Yiannis, the market is changing too – “especially the younger crowd, the millennials and so on”. No-one really understands millennials, older generations think they’re lazy – but they’re not lazy, they just don’t like wasting time.
“They want convenience, or they want an emotional connection,” is how he puts it. “They want the two extremes. They’re not interested in going shopping in huge shopping centres… Either they’re going to order online, because they don’t want to bother – or, if they’re going to get out of the house, they want an emotional connection, they want something that you feel”. Hanging out in bland, impersonal places isn’t enough for them – partly because hanging out isn’t as much fun as it once was, with everyone on their phones (Covid restrictions don’t help either). Yiannis singles out Tutto Passa, the tiny pop-up pizza place in Nicosia: “The buzz is amazing… Three pizzas, three drinks, everybody sitting on the street eating their pizza. It’s real. People want real. There’s been so much fakeness that people want real.”
The world is changing in general. It scares him, he admits, as a dad of three kids (a 16-year-old boy and two girls, 14 and 10): “Things are changing a lot faster, they’re changing in a way we can’t control”. We may actually be living through a paradigm shift, what Aris Roussinos in a recent article at Unherd called “a worldwide slow-motion, but accelerating collapse of globalisation” – heightened by Covid, illustrated in the current spate of shortages and broken supply chains. “We tried globalisation,” as Yiannis puts it, “[then] Covid hit and it showed us a lot of lessons – so let’s go small, let’s go local, let’s go seasonal. Let’s get the real thing, you know?”.
It’s a tricky message to impart in Cyprus, a country with some self-esteem issues; we always like to follow bigger countries and copy foreign practices, we’ve always been shy about expressing our Cypriot-ness (“Cypriot products should be promoted more,” he laments; “I mean, look at what’s going on with halloumi, it’s ridiculous!”). Globalisation came naturally to what is, after all, a culture of merchants – just like Yiannis’ family, who’ve been merchants from way back. “The Tryfons go back to, like, 1915 – bringing herrings from Greece, and tyres and sugar,” he explains. He himself tried studying Business (he could hardly do otherwise) but quit after a year and switched to Music Production; later he went to the UK, tried in vain to find studio work – he did make an album called The Drift, about 15 years ago – managed two optician’s shops for his father-in-law, then his wife Maria became pregnant so they moved back to Cyprus, where he started Get Fresh a few years later. His life has always been a step or two left-of-centre, a businessman like his forebears yet slightly askew, slightly reluctant, thinking beyond mere profit to that more elusive ‘impact’.
A changing world hits a culture of merchants hard – maybe because shared ideals have been lacking in recent years, beyond money. (Even our church is largely about money.) “It’s always been considered cool to make a lot of money,” shrugs Yiannis. “It’s cool to be a quick entrepreneur guy, maybe pull a few fast ones to get where you want. And we’ve completely lost the core of, y’know…” He shakes his head, trying to articulate the problem: “I don’t even know why we’re doing all this. I don’t know how many people are actually enjoying what they’re doing”.
The culture’s getting worse, he sees it with his kids at school – a growing polarisation, once again copying what they do abroad; some kids are woke, “completely grabbing on to the new way of thinking”, others think it’s cool to be far-right and racist. “And we’re not explaining it enough to the kids, kids are not hanging out with their parents enough for the parents to explain what’s right and wrong anymore. And everything’s going through – that,” he adds, pointing to his smartphone, “which, as we all know, is such a brainwashing tool”.
What do you do in a changing world? Maybe anchor yourself in your community: go local, like Yiannis Tryfon says. Forge a misfit union, find something real. It’s easy enough to lose the plot – and in fact he did lose the plot, he admits as much. He and Maria divorced three years ago; “It was amazing while it lasted” – but they’d known each other since they were 13, and they grew into very different people. With both parents working, and three kids to raise, “you’re so focused, with your head down, trying to get it done” – then suddenly you’re 40, and look up and wonder what you’re doing. “Things just kind of fell apart in my life,” he admits; he walked away from Get Fresh soon after his divorce, lost his Canadian grandfather (the former military attaché), lost his dad the year after that. “I hit the bottom to come back up” – Misfit Union being his own personal reboot, his second act.
Will this rather hard-to-pin-down concept work? Hopefully. After all, it’s not just buying food. It’s buying food that seeks to be healthy and natural (and local, and seasonal), and it’s also buying food – in the hard times that increasingly loom ahead – that’ll give something back to the community; an emotional connection, if you will. Yiannis feels it too, especially in a post-Covid landscape when the sands seem to be shifting so dramatically, and people’s mental health remains so fragile. “We need to be more aware of people just – not being well,” he muses thoughtfully. “We need to be more caring, more loving with the people around us.” Like I said, one of the good guys.