As I walk on the main thoroughfare in Providence, RI, on Westminster Street, I see a store that "smells" of Greece. As I look at the large glass window, I see pictures of Greek islands and recipes with Greek products. On the shelves I see Greek products, from dried mushrooms and tea, from Kozani egg yolk to organic olive oil, fresh fruits and even Greek water! When I go inside I taste the authentic Greek cuisine, the fresh aroma of coffee. I feel the warmth of the people and the hospitality.
FROM ATHENS TO RHODE ISLAND
When Yolenis opened in Athens in 2012, in the time of the Greek deep crisis, it had a purpose: to promote Greek products from small producers who struggled to survive in difficult times. So, it initially started operating as an online shop, shipping products around the world. "We chose very selectively from the best of places all over Greece. We chose 800 different products, the best we found. We created the website which facilitated orders around the world," says Yolenis Providence’s owner Alexandra Philippidis, who runs the business along with her sons Yannis and Dimitris.
The beginning had been made. In November 2016, the first shop was opened on Solonos Street in Kolonaki. "It was a place where everyone could come to see and test the products. Then there was interest from London, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and of course Greece. But we then started investing in America and its market, because it is the largest market in the world. When we came here, we chose Providence in Rhode Island because it is surrounded by very good universities with students from all over the world, such as Johnson Wells, Brown, and the Rhode Island School of Design.
We believed it was the best choice with its rich cultural life, but without the high rents of New York and Boston. There is a renaissance here at this time with great growth, as big well-known companies have headquarters here. Besides, Providence is the number ten destination all over America as a university center. "So they started looking for the space that would host the shop with the Greek products and a restaurant.
"We started researching where people would go for lunch. We sat in many shops for many hours. We observed what they were eating, how long they stayed, etc. The place we chose is a focal point – on a main road, a corner, and in a historic building. It took us a year-and-a-half to renovate this building, which is protected and is of historic importance.”The Thilden Thurber building, built in the 19th century, was the largest silverware manufacturer in the world for many years. During the WWII, Queen Elizabeth had visited it and it was there that she kept her personal jewelry because she did not want to put it in a bank. She brought it to be placed in a safe. “We have this safe at the shop. We had a locksmith open it. It's very heavy, but we kept it because it is part of history," says Alexandra.Alexandra came to Rhode Island from the island of Skiathos, but the family connection goes deeper.
"In 1863 my grandfather had a U.S. passport. At that time, it was just a paper certificate, with a stamp on it, where you wrote why you were traveling. He was a shipbuilder and he also did lobster fishing. He came from Skiathos to Newport. He also had the monopoly on nuts. He was the only one selling them and now I am laughing because I sell them here as well. I grew up speaking Greek at home and I also went to a Greek school. And then, I couldn’t imagine that after I got married I would go to live in Greece and then come back here with my family and children, Yannis and Dimitris, without whom the task would be much harder," Alexandra said.
Yolenis opened its doors on May 10, 2018. "I remember everything was ready, the whole team, and we said ‘shall we open the doors?’ Big lines of people were waiting outside. It was unbelievable. People were making reservations at the restaurant from Maine to New Jersey, from Massachusetts and Canada. We ship Greek products to places that we could not imagine. What people prefer most is honey, olive oil, dried mushrooms, truffle oil, and homemade chocolates. We sell to people from Florida, South Dakota, Arkansas, Texas, and California.”
Entering Yolenis you see Greece everywhere. The aromas of spices from the cuisine, Greek yogurt, fresh sweets, Greek coffee. The menu was chosen by the chefs who have come from Greece. You eat food prepared from authentic recipes like your grandmother’s. There are homemade soups every day – cream soup, bean soup.
"The Americans who eat here are crazy about the food and they say it reminds them of Greek authentic food. Everyone has traveled to Greece, and they come and say ‘thank you, it's like being on a Greek island.’ This is what they feel when they are here. Plate fish, yiouvetsi, octopus, souzoukakia. Even the water we serve comesfrom Greece. We also make fresh juices with fruits and vegetables.”In the background is the grocery store, and even the wooden shelves come from Greece, along with the containers. In the middle there is an olive tree, a symbol that everyone recognizes as a key ingredient of the Mediterranean diet.
"The most odd product we have is a sweet sauce with mushroom, vanilla, and almond. It’s very special and the chefs use it as a secret ingredient. Another one is apple sauce with tomato. We put it together with cheese or meat and cook it again as a secret ingredient. Our other best sellers are the nuts and fruits that come from Greece fresh off the plane. Strawberries, apricots, plums, figs. Our yogurts are authentic, we don’t put in sugar, only honey, and we make different flavors. The tea we bring with Kozani egg yolk is very special while we have organic tea for good mood and balance. We also bring frozen non-GMO pizza with cheese. We don’t put sausage on top as they do not allow us to bring meat from Greece," says Philippides.
Yolenis also brings cosmetics, natural and organic. A fragrance with herbs, gathered over 155 days, is a bestseller and is already sold out. All are free of chemicals and are ideal for those who have allergies.This new Greek spot also hosts Greek nights at least once a week.
"We want the world to learn, not only Greek-Americans, to help Greece and small producers there. Our online shop www.yolenis.com is now enriched with hundreds of authentic Greek products and delivers at competitive prices all over America and Canada. Our aim is to find the way to make more shops like ours and to bring Greek products into the choices of Americans. We moved from our country and we miss it. Greece is far away, but in our hearts, it is always in first place.”