An Interview with Stefanie Kasselakis of Vassilaros Coffee, New York
February 25, 2017
Sara Kerens 2012, Dresscode, Vassilaros Coffee
NEW YORK – I had never met anyone with my last name outside my native lands of Chania, Crete. Then I moved to New York, and people kept asking me if I was related to a certain Stefanie Kasselakis.
I thought this could not be possible – that it would be in New York I would find a relative with the same last name – and one with my exact (female version) first name no less! As if this coincidence were not enough, she too earned her stripes in the investment banking and shipping worlds.
As it turns out, Stefanie is one of the most eloquent and thoughtful business leaders I have ever met.
She is at the helm of Vassilaros Coffee, a century-old coffee roasting company that has been central to New York’s daily lifeline as well as to the local Greek-American community. The following is an excerpt of the full interview you can find online, in which we cover everything from the origins of Vassilaros Coffee to advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. So I suggest you get a cup of coffee and enjoy!
TNH: Stefanie, thanks for joining The National Herald for this profile. You run a business that delivers millions of cups of coffee a week to New Yorkers. How does that feel in terms of the responsibility you have every day managing a business so critical to the New York daily life?
SK: It is a huge responsibility. It affects the happiness of people every day because we’re producing their morning coffee, which is an important part of everybody’s day. It’s a great thrill because I can’t imagine any other business that can touch so many people in such an important way so directly – our product has a direct connection to the bodies of other people.
TNH: Interesting. Tell us a little bit about how it all started a hundred years ago.
SK: My great grandfather John Vassilaros was from the island of Ikaria and immigrated to the United States with nothing, just like his fellow immigrants, with his wife and his young child Antony. He did not speak English, he was a waiter, he held down two jobs, he taught himself English at night at the nearby public library. At one point, he became ill and was out of work for a couple of months, and he realized that it was a very insecure financial position to work with his body for an employer.
An early photo of the
company’s first storefront on
Third Avenue in New York City.
His wife encouraged him to become a restaurant supplier. At the time there was a budding Greek community in the restaurant business. He went out on his own, bought beans, roasted them in his kitchen with his wife Sofia and her sister Frosini, and they delivered them to the first few costumers that he had. When I asked my grandfather why we had this business and not another business, he said, “There are thousands of restaurants in New York. If you think of something to sell them for a few hundred dollars a week, you’re going to make a lot of money.”
TNH: So when did the clientele start to diversify from the Greek-only waves of immigrants your family supported as they started their own restaurants to a more diversified business?
SK: Probably in the 1970s and 80s there started to be a diversification, not away from the Greek community, but in addition to the Greek community. There’s still a great cultural tie – I still speak Greek a great part of the day with customers and colleagues – but our company has completely diversified in our employees and also in our clientele.
The Greek community remains a very important part of our business, it’s a sentimental part of our business, but it is not the only part of our business. However we are celebrating our upcoming 100-year anniversary with a special edition Greek-style blend called “ellinikos” that is distinctly rich, creamy, and refined.
TNH: Looking forward to trying it! So what types of principles have you been able to observe that were critical to your great grandfather’s success?
SK: I think the main lessons I’ve learned so far are that he was very precise, very focused on quality, not in a generic sense of the word. The first lesson is to be your absolute best self. The second lesson is that he and his wife truly were a team. They were part of the Greek community of course, and she was with him every step of the way.
She was a traditional housewife, stayed home; they had open house for Sunday supper, for which she and her relatives would cook lots and lots of food and my great grandfather’s motto was, “If you have an open house on Sunday, they cannot owe you money on Monday.” Relationships were important, and so was the duality of their marriage. They had a partnership, which was very modern, but they looked traditional from the outside.
TNH: Tell us about your grandfather Antony.
SK: Antony, with whom I was very close, was a different kind of person. My great grandfather was very strict. My grandfather was a very relaxed, social and, charismatic person. As a joke he was called “tough Tony” because he was the opposite of that. The people who worked for him loved him.
TNH: So Antony diversified the clientele?
SK: He grew the clientele and at that time the market was evolving beyond the Greek community. His son, my uncle, eventually took over. He was the third generation to run the business. In my uncle’s time, the commodity business would require global skill, as it would be impacted by the weather in Brazil, currency changes, political issues, changes in the supply, etc. The hedge funds themselves have become players too.
When my uncle became ill and it became clear he was too sick to continue running the company, we spoke to develop a succession plan.
TNH: So you were the first manager who had experience outside the company, and not just experience! Top-level, corporate, legal, and investing banking experience all coming to this multi-generational traditional business, a business that is dominated by males up and down the supply chain. Were you afraid of the opportunity cost, the alternative path you would be leaving behind?
SK: It was a very hard but also an easy decision. It was hard because it was a big decision. However, there was almost no decision to be made. How could I not do this? It is my family, our legacy.
TNH: Did you have to develop a skill set on the street-smart aspect of the business relative to what you had developed before in the corporate world?
SK: What I needed to change or learn was the language. There’s a different language spoken on the street level of New York, the pre-dawn hours of New York. There is a different body language, there are different ethnicities, different hints, different subtleties. So the jargon of my prior career was not the jargon that my new peers and colleagues spoke.
TNH: Were there instances when you encountered skepticism because you were an up-and-coming woman in this industry?
SK: No. I actually haven’t heard of any.
TNH: Do you think it’s given you perhaps…an edge?
SK: I think that ultimately it comes down to who can do the job and who has the skills. And that’s what really matters. But for the fun of it, being a woman in a male industry is something I’m used to. I used to be in oil and gas and shipping, and that’s not exactly a female concentration business, either. Earlier one of the advantages was that everybody remembered my name because in a sea of male bankers, my voice was different, I appeared differently, and I was the only woman. So everybody knew the only woman.
As I get older, I feel a real shift afoot. The business leaders are now in their 50s and 60s and I don’t know if it’s because their daughters have grown up or because they have more experience now with women of my generation being in leadership positions working with them, but there’s much more exposure to women on a professional basis. I’m hearing over and over again, “My Goodness! Women are great! Women bring so much to the table.” They are almost wondering how they missed it.
TNH: Do you think the Greek mentality is still really backwards on this front? Or would you say it’s right up to speed with the rest of the United States?
SK: I don’t think it’s backwards at all. I would think the opposite. I think Greek women are.
TNH: But in terms of being more traditional family-wise…
SK: They may appear more traditional but the respect and reliance on female members of the household in business is real. I was at a customer recently and his daughter manages the restaurant. She is very young – and he also has two sons and he turned around to me and said “She could run it all with her eyes closed.” He is so impressed with her.
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