Cookisto Home-Cooked Food Network

The studio apartment I had in graduate school shared a lightwell with another three apartments. None of my neighbors were particularly noisy but man, could they cook! Sunday afternoons as I was tied to my desk finishing up a paper or preparing for the next day’s seminar, my apartment would fill with the aroma of meatballs being fried or lamb roasting in the oven. I still remember late afternoons in the fall when my concentration was completely broken by the smell of an apple pie baking in a neighbor’s oven.

Cookisto’s co-founders Michalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis, photo by Thomas Gravanis
Cookisto’s co-founders Michalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis, photo by Thomas Gravanis

As a single and relatively poor student I relied heavily on take-out, salads and the university cafeteria. My cooking, if you can call it that, was confined to things like macaroni ‘n cheese, tuna casserole and now and then a pan-fried pork chop.

Of course I never dared ask for a portion of my neighbors’ cooking, though I was on friendly terms with most of them, and I imagine they would have cut me a piece of lasagna had I asked. The irony is that they probably had a few servings left over anyway. I would have paid. And at least one of my neighbors, a retired unmarried woman trying to make ends meet on a small pension, would have been glad for the extra cash. If only Cookisto had been around then.

Cookisto is an online community that connects amateur cooks and hungry city residents. The idea is diabolically simple. Like me at graduate school, there are lots of people who can’t or don’t want to cook, but would love an inexpensive home-cooked meal. And there are people, like my pensioner neighbor, who are cooking anyway—and usually more than they can eat—and might be interested in selling the extra portions. Connect the two and let them exchange food for cash.

Home page of the Cookisto website

Cookisto says its “gourmets”—the order placers, as it were—are people who don’t have the time, energy or talent to cook. Or people who are tired of take-out or simply can’t afford it anymore. We are in the middle of a protracted and deep recession after all. And the cooks? Talented enthusiasts who are glad of the public recognition of their skills or who just want to earn a little extra cash.

Cooks list the dish, number of servings available and cost per serving, as well as a time frame within which the user can pick up the order. As a user, you begin by entering your location and then are presented with a list of the day’s menu offerings in their area, as well as a map of the cooks in your area. You find what you want to eat, contact the cook and arrange the pick up (the site rightfully recommends that this not happen in the cook’s home). Many of the cooks registered with Cookisto even deliver, within a 1 km radius of their homes. Most of the dishes are down-to-earth and relatively healthy Greek home cooking, things like braised chicken with okra, zucchini and cheese pie, baked elephant beans. Prices seem very reasonable. The cooks in my neighborhood are offering dishes like stuffed peppers and tomatoes with rice and minced beef for €4, chicken and mushroom pie for €2, and chickpea stew for €2.

Cookisto has no way of knowing how scrupulously its cooks observe the rules of hygiene or of determining the quality and freshness of ingredients they use. One security gateway, admittedly very basic, is provided by linking the cooks’ profiles to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and even telephone numbers, but this is in itself no guarantee against tasteless food or food-borne pathogens. No, the most important quality check naturally comes from users’ reviews and you can bet a case of chicken fricassee staph would get reported quickly (and no, there hasn’t been a single case reported. .On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of reviews have been very favorable.). In fact, given the immediacy and reach of social-networking feedback, you probably have more information on the quality of the food that Cookisto cooks prepare than you would for the food you eat in restaurants. By the way, users rate not only the quality of the dish itself but also the quantity or size of the portion and the reliability of the cook.

Cookisto was founded by two long-time friends, Mihalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis,  with Master’s degrees in Global Entrepreneurship and Management, respectively. The idea for the platform grew out of the business plan that Gkontas completed for his thesis project. The rest of the team includes Yannis Asimakopoulos and the duo responsible for the technical side of the project, Panayiotis Paradellis, and Dimosthenes Nikoudis.

Since the launch of the beta platform at the end of July this year, Cookisto has registered 285 cooks and 2155 ‘gourmets’, who’ve placed more than 400 orders. An auspicious start which, with the introduction of new features such as the ability to pre-order a dish in the cook’s repertory, is poised to make Cookisto a very visible feature on the city’s budget-range gastronomic map.


Become a Farmer! Community-Shared Agriculture Platform

As Greeks struggle to adapt to a protracted period of harsh austerity, new initiatives have emerged that break with existing economic and social practices and offer new models of organizing the way we provide for and take care of our selves. One of the most interesting of these initiatives comes from the tradition of community-shared agriculture (CSA), in which individuals pre-book a share of the weekly harvest of small farmers. Although CSA’s have existed in Japan, North America and Western Europe for decades, Gine Agrotis (Become a Farmer!), which began operating in Greece in March 2012,  is something  new for Greece.

Home page of the (Gine Agrotis) “Become a Farmer” website

The idea behind Gine Agrotis is relatively simple. Register with the platform and book a field on one of the certified organic farms that belong to the service’s network. You decide how much land to reserve; there are two-, three- and four-person packages available, at a cost ranging from €14.20 to €20.90 per week. In contrast to many other CSAs, you also decide what vegetables you want “your” farmer to plant for you, selecting from a list of vegetables that can be seasonally grown. You prepay for a year’s worth of the harvest from your plot. About 30 to 90 days after the agreement has been made, your first weekly shipments of the vegetables from your plot start being delivered to your home or office.

The initiative is based on an innovative and disruptive business model that leverages the potential of a social networking platform to connect local  farmers, in large part young farmers, directly with consumers. Cutting out the middlemen means better prices for both consumer and farmer. Farmers are freed from distribution concerns and associated costs (they also benefit from lower fees for inspection that Gine Agrotis has secured for them in the context of the QWays ISO Certification system for organic farming, to which all the network’s farmers are committed to applying.) Subscribers are guaranteed organically grown food that is fresher than what they would probably find anywhere in the city and at lower cost.

As Gine Agrotis suggests, food is political. What and how we eat reflects positions we have taken on a range of social, health and environmental issues. In this light “becoming a farmer” can usher in other changes in the way its subscribers live. One involves trading in winter strawberries and fall asparagus for local seasonal produce with a decidedly smaller carbon footprint. The platform also ties its urban consumers more directly to the process by which their food is grown. Subscribers can visit their fields and receive regular posts with photos showing the progress of the crops in their field (apparently there’s also an idea of providing live video streaming from the field).

Gine Agrotis was founded by Dimitris Koutsolioutsos, a 26-year-old graduate of the Athens University of Economics and Business and son of the businessman who started the enormously successful Greek-based international luxury goods manufacturer, Folie-Folie. Koutsolioutsos rightly sees this initiative as an attempt to “break the market”, and a way to offer “a better quality of life to the city’s residents.”

Healthful eating is naturally part of this better quality of living. I am fairly certain that most subscribers wind up eating a greater quantity of fresh vegetables as part of their diet. And at times, such as those occasioned by a bumper crop of zucchini, in ever more creative ways.

Dopios: Community Travel Marketplace

A city is more than a built environment, more than the architecture, monuments and museums, the bars and cafés that one can find described in travel guides (and in cases like TripAdvisor, supplemented with helpful crowd-sourced ratings). A city is also the people who live there and their stories. It is a vast collective depository of lore and legend and a reservoir of insiders’ knowledge that would take months if not years of living in the city to acquire. Admittedly, guide books do contain such insider tips and their writers make an effort to recommend things to do, see and eat that are off the beaten track. But what you wind up with is a thousand different keys to the city, whereas it might be ideal to hook up with knowledgeable locals who their own set of keys to the city to unlock the kind of experience you’re looking for.

The home page of the Dopios website
The home page of the Dopios website

Dopios (ντόπιος), which means ‘local’ in Greek, is an online platform that does just that. It connects visitors with locals who are willing to share their knowledge of the city—or rather, the particular version of the city they experience—with travelers. In the words of the firm’s founders, this open-market model seeks to “open up every last square mile of this world to be safe, unique and breathtaking to step onto.” The word unique is deliberate: Dopios’ directory of locals are not tour guides but instead enthusiasts of one sort or another. They could be cyclists or sailors,  foragers of wild greens or collectors of handicrafts, denizens of underground clubs or upscale cocktail bars, gallery hounds and neighborhood historians.

The service is fairly straightforward. Both locals and visitors register with Dopios to use the service (though you can browse the listings without logging in). You’re encouraged to link your Dopios profile with your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts as a way of enhancing your credibility and trustworthiness. Considering the traveler might be going out on a bar crawl or to someone’s house for dinner, the safety factor is understandably important. Locals are also encouraged to be interviewed by a member or associate of the Dopios network to have their identity verified, and the Dopios team is developing more ways to provide the early adopters of the platform with a sense of security and trust. Obviously, the more travelers a local has worked with—and thus, the greater the number of ratings he or she has received—the more information a traveler has to evaluate the service being offered.

Locals describe and post the experience they’re offering and the price. Recent entries in the directory include a stroll to the studios of local craftsmen, a motorcycle excursion to the hills outside Athens, an afternoon of personal shopping, and a sail to the island of Evia. Ah, yes, and a home-cooked meal. Locals can also list their availability to provide general advice about Athens, help on planning the trip and mobile support while the traveler is in the city.  Visitors browse through the listings to find an experience they’re interested in or can request a custom one, and then use the platform to contact the local and make arrangements. The Dopios team reports having received 1500 emails from people who expressed interest in becoming a local and  more than 300 profiles are in progress.

Dopios was founded by Manolis Kounelakis, Nikos Sarilakis, Anand Henry, and Alex Trimis, who are based in San Francisco. The team is rounded out with Evi Choursanidi, who serves as community manager in Greece. Although the project was launched for Athens, the platform is open now for London, San Francisco and Istanbul, with plans to extend it soon to other countries.

Though the name of the platform comes from the Greek, it also brings to mind the Italian doppio, or double. By overlaying the sights and delights of the city with a layer of the personal, Dopios provides a double service to both traveler and local by giving each an opportunity to meet new people (and the local with the chance to earn a little bit of money). It’s also a double provision of “good Greek stuff”, helping travelers experience not only the less accessible delights of the city but also the city’s greatest resource: its people.

Taxibeat Smartphone Taxi Service App

Hailing a cab used to be like going out on a blind date with someone you met on the internet who didn’t have a face pic. You never knew who’d show up. It could be a guy with an old beat-up stinky compact cab who smoked through the whole ride with trash music blaring through the speakers behind your seat. Or it could be a decent and courteous driver in a clean and spacious air-conditioned vehicle who actually used the polite, and not the familiar, form of address.

Taxibeat, smartphone app to locate, select and hail your personal driver
Taxibeat, app to locate, select and hail your personal driver (here the PC version)

Actually it was worse than a blind date, because you couldn’t really get out of it. It usually took such a long time to find a cab that you couldn’t afford to be picky about the drivers. Many Athenians will remember the pre-crisis days when we were thankful for any ride, when hailing a cab meant bending down in a busy street to shout your destination to a driver as he slowed down to see if your destination fit with those of the passengers already in the car. In those days, passengers didn’t hail cabs; drivers hailed passengers.

It was the perfect example of a perversely distorted market. Consumers had little or no information on the quality of the service before making their purchase. They couldn’t “punish” bad service-I mean, what were you going to do, threaten to go somewhere else the next time you needed a ride?–and there was no sense in rewarding good service.

Although five years of recession and deep cuts in pay and pensions have reduced passenger volume, it can still be hard to find a cab in the suburbs, especially at night. But even if you’re in the city, you still have the blind-date problem.

But things are changing. Taxibeat is an innovative smartphone application, currently available for iPhones and Android phones, that makes it easy not only to find a cab through its network of freelance drivers who have signed on to the service but also to know in advance something about the driver and car you’re getting into. Actually, it’s even better. You get to choose what driver you want to pick you up.

Here’s how it works.

Your phone broadcasts your location to the application (though you can change this if it’s not where you want to be picked up from. The app displays a real-time map with your the location of drivers in your area, as well as such information as the driver’s name (and picture), the model and license plate of the car and, importantly, the ratings the driver has received from other passengers. It even has info on what languages the driver speaks, if there’s a charger for your mobile and whether credit cards (or pets!) are accepted. You select the cab you want and once hailed, the app shows you the vehicle’s approach on the map. Once in the cap, you can click a “boarding” button that will then record your ride (which you can post to Facebook I assume). Like a good social network citizen, of course, you rate the driver and ride when you finish. Future plans include the ability to pre-arrange a ride.

Taxibeat is the quintessential disruptive technology, one that’s changing the rules of the market by putting control in the hands of the passengers. Its feedback mechanisms create an ever growing reservoir of crowd intelligence that obliges drivers to improve the quality of their services.

Taxibeat was founded in early 2011 by Nick Drandakis and Nikos Damilakis. It received initial funding from Openfund, an Athens-based investment fund that provides business advice and seed funding to start-ups. In addition to Athens, the company has already launched its application in Rio de Janeiro and plans soon to expand operations in southern European cities with similar taxi markets to the one in Athens.

For more on the Taxibeat business model, see the interview with founder Nick Drandakis on the site.

Terrain Editions Greek Island Maps

When you wander off the beaten path—and there is ample opportunity (and temptation) to do so when exploring a Greek island—you want to be sure that the path you’ve chosen goes where the map says it goes and doesn’t vanish into an undergrowth of thicket or morph into a dry creek bed. Luckily you can be sure of where you’re headed if your map is one of the highly accurate and exceptionally detailed topographic maps that Terrain Editions has produced for 48 Greek islands (as well as for the mountain regions of Mt. Parnitha and Mt. Pelion).

Three of the 48 Greek island maps by Terrain Editions
Three of the 48 Greek island maps by Terrain Editions

Terrain’s team of “traveling cartographers”, certified GIS analysts with a passion for both map-making and exploring the Greek countryside, conduct a complete field survey in preparing their maps. Outfitted with their handheld GNSS devices (Mobile Mapper) they cover every kilometer of road and path with their 4 x 4 or motorcycle—and on foot when the path can no longer be driven on. As company founder Stefanos Psimenos says “No matter where our customers may want to go, we have been there before them.” Terrain has circumnavigated every one of the islands it has produced maps for, as well as the islets off their coasts. This has resulted in an unprecedentedly detailed description of the coastline. The beaches, even the tiny stretches along coves accessible only by boat, are marked and characterized in terms of the sea bed and beach cover (sandy or pebbled) and the presence or absence of shade.

The maps are beautiful to look at and to hold. The non-cartographic elements—from the cover design to the key and descriptive text—have been designed by the award-winning design firm, mousegraphics. The maps are printed not on paper but instead on Polyart, a high-density clay-coated polyethylene film. They’re 100% waterproof and for all intents and purposes, rip-proof as well. It’s one of the few maps I’ve seen with both a list of credits—the members of the cartographic and design team who put together the map—and an expiration date, since Terrain collects revisions and updates their maps periodically. The (100% recyclable) Patmos map I got last year came with a date stamp (2009) and the instruction: “use until 2012”.

Elevations are of course indicated, and the segments of the primary and secondary hiking paths are marked with very useful detailed distance measurements between junctions (as short as 0.1 km if need be). The maps faithfully record such features as archaeological sites and chapels, caves and springs, but also more unusual points such as windmills, old stone lighthouses and threshing floors. These are maps to be used by enthusiasts of all kinds, from hikers and climbers to kayakers and divers. Canyoning routes are indicated, as are diving centers and the characteristics of the sea bed off the beaches. Oh, and beach bars are noted, too.

It is indicative of the reputation for accuracy and quality that the company has established in its brief five-year history that ViewRanger has partnered with Terrain Editions to make the latter’s topographic maps available as premium content for their mobile GPS app, as it has with organizations such as the Bundesamt für Geodäsie und Kartographie, National Geographic Maps, and the UK Ordnance Survey, highly rarefied cartographic company to be in, if you ask me.