by Jackie Markin
When Michael “TonTon” Antonopolous talks passionately about the vision for his business in Talent, Oregon you can almost see it: A vibrant corner with family and friends hanging out, food vendors, casual dining, beer and wine, local musicians, even Mediterranean belly dancers.
Clearly, Antonopolous has a much bigger vision than selling hummus to loyal customers in the Rogue Valley—he says he wants to create a gathering place in the heart of Talent. “I want it to be a healthy community hub that features food, music and art of region.”
The first big step toward that dream happened in February. TonTon’s moved to a new, bigger location. He’s calling it “TonTon’s Community Casbah.” The space includes a new commercial kitchen, a storefront and additional space for a patio and outdoor seating. But, Antonopolous realizes he can’t manage this new space all on his own. He wants to bring in more local merchants to share the space and his vision.But first, let’s take a step back and look at how Antonopolous built his quickly expanding hummus business. It’s quite a story. Antonopolous says he was living on food stamps when he borrowed $2,500 from his landlord to invest in a blender and a pressure cooker to make fresh non-GMO, gluten-free hummus and vegan cookies. Within 12 months he had grossed $100,000 and his numbers have been close to that every year since.
He originally thought his cookies would be the key business, but it was the hummus that really took off. “I did a really good thing by coming out with a staple food rather than just a dessert,” he says. The hummus accounts for about 88% of his revenue, the cookies about 10% and the remaining 2% are his roasted chickpea “snackers.”
And a new product is now being added to the mix. TonTon’s will be offering vegan, gluten-free pita bread at the Growers Markets. He says likes the idea of adding another staple food without competing directly with other gluten-free bread producers in the region.
Antonopolous calls his approach to business “sustainability in action.” He says, “we operate in pursuit of the Three P’s: people, planet and profit. So when you buy TonTon’s you’re choosing a company that cares about you.”
The company has registered with the state as a B-Corp, or “benefit company.” That means Antonopolous must demonstrate through his business practices that he cares about people and the environment in addition to making a profit.
He sources his ingredients close to home—all the beans are grown in Oregon or Washington State. Many of the herbs come from his garden. The recipes are his invention. But, he says his life experience is the “key ingredient” to his success.
“I’m Greek and I grew up in a small business family. My grandfather had a hot dog shop in Athens, Ohio.” Antonopolous adds that he was a worker/owner in a bakery in the 90’s. But, it’s his martial arts background and his Burning Man experience that provide his business style.
“I would give some credit to what I’ve learned in my years of building and helping at Burning Man as knowing how to coordinate a group of leaders, create a situation where the creative process gets to take charge. I’ve learned that when you’re herding or coordinating a group of leaders there are ways to get things done. And the best way to get things done is to let people do what they’re inspired to do, figure out what’s left and divvy that up, but finding what inspires people is a key.”
A big step in expanding TonTon’s distribution is underway now. After signing a contract with a regional food broker the company is poised to expand throughout Oregon and move into Washington, Colorado, Idaho and Alaska.
The expanded distribution is possible because of the new kitchen. The stoves are gas instead of electric so the cooking time has been cut in half. The hummus is now processed hot adding to its shelf life. More and more of the production (now all done by hand) can be automated as the business grows. And, the community hub in Talent is integral to that growth.
When talking to Antonopolous his sense of community is prominent in all aspects of his business approach. He wants his prospective partners to be local food merchants and he believes local businesses will thrive if they work together. “Because I founded this business on community and sharing I also want to make certain that I’m not going to be competing directly with other local producers, that I can support their businesses.”
“I think there’s a big enough market, there’s a big enough community that the sharing outweighs the competitive here and the strength and importance of it,” he adds.
Antonopolous is also community-oriented in how he is funding his expansion. He is one of the first Rogue Valley businesses to participate in Oregon's groundbreaking investment mechanism, the Community Public Offering. Supported by Hatch Oregon—a non-profit that provides support for businesses and a portal for all Oregonians interested in investing in Oregon business. Essentially, TonTon’s customers can help the business grow by investing in it.
Which brings us back to Antonopolous’ vision of a healthy community hub. While this photo of the future “TonTon’s Community Casbah” may look like an empty room to you, but to Michael Antonopolous it’s much more. “This is my progeny, this is my baby, I’m married to it; I’m committed. To me it’s not work, I love it.”