ATHENS – Both civil engineers making a living during Greece’s more than 7 ½-year long economic crisis, Vivian Sartzetaki and her husband, Thanassis Skalistiras, weren’t skittish about taking a chance on opening a business while all around them scores of thousands of others were closing theirs, victims of austerity and Greeks cutting back spending.
“I was scared but we have good experience,” she told The National Herald as she ran the cash register and answered a phone – it rang with orders – at the small souvlaki and home-made food store they built out of a chocolate chain store that couldn’t make it at the same spot. They weren’t daunted, she said.
The family also runs a beach restaurant on the island of Syros and said they knew the food business, saw the storefront was close to a Metro stop and major roadways and took a flier they were going to make it, even after just opening this month.
“The first 10 days are experimental,” she said. “I think we will be okay because our position her is good and our food is good,” she said. “People don’t have money for desserts but are okay for food,” she said, especially low-cost, quality food she said they serve.
It takes nerves and guts. Through 2015 alone, some 244,712 businesses shuttered, victims of a squeezed economy as successive governments beginning in 2010 imposed big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, and worker firings on orders of international lenders to get three bailouts of 326 billion euros ($398.98 billion) to save the economy from decades of wild overspending and runaway patronage by political parties who plundered the coffers.
But now, there are more businesses opening than closing, more people taking a chance, scooping up storefronts closed for years, wiping the grime off windows, believing they can succeed where others have failed.
It has ironically coincided with Prime Minister and ruling Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras claiming credit for what he said is a coming recovery – without acknowledging that, if it happens, it’s because he reneged on anti-austerity promises and imposed more brutal conditions on workers, pensioners and the poor to satisfy the creditors putting up rescue packages to save Greece from itself.
“My dreams go beyond (the crisis) and I hope I will make a brand,” Sartzetaki said. She and her husband and partners, including construction company owner Lefteris Peppas, 50, and his brother, Costas – who tends to the grill – put some 50,000 euros ($61,193) of their own money to get the business up and running with banks buried under a mountain of bad loans cutting back severely on small-business lending.
Costas, who is effervescent and gregarious, was buoyant about the prospects of the new venture launched during still dark days for many small businesses. “We believe in ourselves,” he said and there wasn’t a hint of a doubt in it.
Sartzetaki was upbeat too. “The crisis will pass because Greeks are like ants. All they time they work very hard and they succeed,” she said. It was mid-afternoon and there wasn’t an overflow of customers in the brand-new shop that featured black tile, and an industrial-goth design of stools and distressed wood tables but there wasn’t an ounce of worry in the air among the small staff.
Even while there are contradictions about the economy: the European Commission expects 2.1 percent growth this year and 2.5 percent in 2018 but Tsipras is seeking debt relief because he said Greece can’t repay what it owes. the Greek economy to grow by 2.1 percent this year and 2.5 percent in 2018.
The number of businesses created since Jan. 1, exceeded the number of failures several months earlier and there are small signs people are holding their breath and taking a chance on investing in small businesses even if Tsipras is having a tough time convincing major foreign investors to take a chance with worries about an avalanche of tax hikes he imposed and the country’s punishing 29 percent corporate tax rate.
Lefteris Peppas isn’t the least bit anxious he and his partners will succeed in their small souvlaki and fast Greek food venture. “I don’t want to sit in my chair with my hands tied,” he said.
“From my father, as a little child, I learned to work and not fear work,” he said, reflecting the irrepressible Greek spirit that has carried people through a crisis even as the government has moved to satisfy the lenders by letting banks foreclose on homes and dusty storefronts still line streets in the Greek capital.
It is people like Sartzetaki, her husband and the Peppas brothers who are driving a possible recovery, some bypassing beleaguered banks and putting their own money and sweat equity into their dreams while critics say the government has cooked the books to show a phony surplus.
Peppas said that Greeks are used to adversity. “World War II was only four or five years long for us,” he said. “We are going to build again.”