Growing up in a Greek household, Mike Rakes has always been involved with food — cooking, tasting, family dinners, eating out, sharing in neighborhood feasts.

“Home is the smell of my mother’s cooking,” he said. “In our family, food is love.”

Good ingredients for those great meals are a source of pride, and to all Greeks, feta cheese is an iconic food.

Rakes knows feta, understands what it takes to make a good one, has studied French, Greek, Bulgarian and domestic feta cheeses. As a kid, his favorite appetizer was feta slathered with roasted peppers. This inspired the recipe for a roasted pepper feta dip that he and his sister, Emily, created for parties years ago. It was always a hit.

“I’d whip it up for guests and to bring to friends; people loved it,” he said.

While studying for an MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, a classmate and fan of this tasty spread asked Rakes, “Why don’t you sell it?” Given that he was majoring in finance and entrepreneurship, he decided to apply what he was studying.

In the summer of 2012, he officially launched Philia Foods at the Linden Hills Farmers Market and, within four years, the line of four products is a national success.

Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s, Jerry’s and local food co-ops featured the spreads right away, followed by stores throughout the Midwest. “We’re shipping to New York and California this month,” Rakes said.

Philia Foods products — Rosemary and Basil, Roasted Red Pepper, Dill and Garlic, and Habanero Pepper spreads — are produced in Shakopee with Wisconsin feta, natural cream cheese and fresh ingredients. They’re free of preservatives and will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. The spreads are great tossed with pasta, slathered over grilled chicken and burgers, and as a dip.

Rakes knows it takes more than a good idea and a great-tasting product to get this far. “We’ve stayed focused, not tried to do too much, and we’ve paid special attention to our stores, our distributors, our brokers. We work with them to provide marketing and sales support and promotions tailored to their locale. We understand that entering a new region, we are up against stiff competition from local companies,” he said. There are no plans to expand the line to other kinds of dips, such as hummus, or to create companion products, like pita chips.

How important was that MBA degree? “Even though starting a business requires a leap of faith, I was prepared,” Rakes said. “I had the financial tools to help me understand what I was in for and I knew there would be up and downs. If I make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world; I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. I launched this business from a place of certainty, so it’s fun.”

The company’s name, “Philia” was inspired by the Greek root word for community and friendship. As Philia Foods rolls out its products across the country, Rakes says, “I like to think we’re spreading some love.”

 

Philia spreads are about $6.99 for 7.5 ounces, and are widely available. See philiafoods.com for recipes.