This is Stella Likitsakos, the owner of Mamagyro. A Greek immigrant who moved to the U.S. with her parents and sister in 1974, food is a part of who she is and opening her own restaurant she says, “was always inside of her”. Stella’s parents owned a small store in Greece before moving to the U.S. so, like her granddaughters now, her life revolved around the store and watching her mother prepare food for their customers until she was a teenager. Once they moved to the U.S., Stella’s father worked as a dishwasher and her mother worked at a fur company making furs. Her father worked for a few years before retiring (there was a significant age gap between her mother and father) but her mother continued working, showing Stella that hard work is the key to success. “She’s the rock”, Stella says, referring to her mother, but this description can also be used when speaking about Stella. A woman who is at her restaurant every day helping to prepare the food and is so committed to providing her customers with an all-natural, clean meal that she doesn’t use butter in any of her recipes or stock in any of her soups, just like her mother. Stella now runs Mamagyro with her daughter, Vicki Giannopoulos, who manages all business operations and catering on top of raising her two young daughters and together they’ve made Mamagyro a staple in the NYC food community. However, more than carrying on their family’s tradition of creating all-natural, authentic and delicious food (which they do), this mother-daughter team is also an example for future generations of women of what hard work combined with passion can forge.
Since she was surrounded by food throughout her childhood, Stella was immediately drawn to the food industry once she started working. She met her husband working at a supermarket that he owned and once they were married, she began running the stores with him. They ran three supermarkets on the Upper East Side and every two years or so, Stella would add something new to the markets, expanding them and slowly turning them into gourmet markets offering everything from fruits and veggies to meat and cheese and prepared food. However, they were still small stores so once large chains like Whole Foods and Fairway started opening and delivery services and online ordering became popular, they started losing business. Their stores were unique with a lot of good quality products but consumers were looking for the “one stop” shopping experience that they couldn’t provide and they had to begin closing the stores. Also during this time, Stella’s husband got in an accident and hurt his neck and was unable to continue running the stores. Stella was in a difficult position and wasn’t sure what to do next. Then one day, as she was walking to Lenox Hill Hospital to visit her husband, she saw a storefront for sale on 77th street and thought, “why can’t I open a little homemade gyro shop here?” It had always been her dream to open her own restaurant and since the supermarkets weren’t doing well, she thought it was time to do something different in the food industry. So she bought the storefront and opened Mamagyro in 2011.
Stella was running Mamagyro for about a year and a half before Vicki joined the business. Vicki had been working at PR company but knew it wasn’t a place she could stay if she wanted to started a family, so she approached her mom and asked her if they could open another store together. So in 2013 they opened their second Mamagyro location on Broadway in Union Square. However, the clientele in Union Square was much different from what they were used to at their flagship store. It was mainly teenagers and young adults who didn’t know them and didn’t want to spend money on good quality food as opposed to the regular customers whose neighborhood they were a part of on 77th street. The lack of steady business combined with staffing issues forced them to close the Union Square store not long after it opened. Soon after closing their Union Square store, they started looking for a commissary kitchen to cook out of because they didn’t have enough space at the 77th street store. However, bad luck struck in 2017 when the building their restaurant on 77th street was in was sold to a new owner who decided to demolish the entire building and kicked out all of the tenants. They now operate solely out of their kitchen space on 106th street, which they were able to turn into another fast casual restaurant. Although they miss their location on 77th street, they’re working on improving the space they’re in now and believe that there is a lot of potential in their new community. The people in the area are very happy to have a new food option available to them and Stella and Vicki see it as an opportunity to expand their reach in a new environment.
If you ask Stella, their all-natural, homemade food is the most important part of their business. And if you ask Vicki, Stella and her hospitality are what customers associate the business with. But both are vital components of what makes this fast casual concept work. All of the recipes for their food are Stella’s mother’s recipes that were passed down to her and now Stella has passed them on to Vicki. It was very important to Stella when creating the menu that everything be high-quality and authentic. They don’t use any canned items in the restaurant. Everything is either made from scratch by them and their team or imported from Greece. They even have their own pita bread recipe, which they have a bakery mass produce for them. For Stella and Vicki, the most rewarding part of the business is knowing that they’re one of the few restaurant in NYC that actually serves good food with clean and fresh ingredients and it’s something that their customers appreciate. To them, it feels good knowing that they’re giving customers all-natural items rather than cheating them with bad ingredients just so they can make more money, which some restaurants do. It would be easy for them to cut corners but they wouldn’t feel right giving customers food with fake ingredients and it’s not the way they want to run their business. It’s this commitment to their food and their passion to keep their brand from becoming commercialized that customers are drawn to as well as Stella’s hospitality. Stella believes that when customers are making a conscious effort to come to their store and buy their food when there’s so many restaurants to choose from, she needs to make it the best experience possible for them and give them more than just food. Vicki says that the way Stella is at home is the way she is in the restaurant. She wants everyone to be comfortable and get the best dining experience possible, which is why they have loyal customers that come in every day and thank them for food that’s been the same great quality since they started.
Although this mother-daughter team is lucky in the fact that they have one another to lean on, they recognize that having a team of people who are dedicated to the business is key for success in the food industry. And it’s an issue that they’ve struggled with in the past. One of the most challenging parts of the business for them has been finding reliable staff that are as committed to the Mamagyro brand as they are. Even though they have each other, there are a lot of different areas to handle when running a business and you need to have team members that have different strengths so that you’re not doing it all on your own. You need to have people behind you that are willing to go through good and bad times with you and continue to push you to do better. That’s the only way your business will grow and it’s something that Stella and Vicki are still working on. However, for the time being they’re excited to see how their business increases in their new location and are considering taking some of the Mamagyro products wholesale (spanakopita, dips, yogurt). They see a need for preservative-free, all-natural food in grocery stores and they feel that taste is being lost with the artificial products that are on shelves now. Stella says she would also love to open a sit-down Greek restaurant in the coming years that focuses on traditional Greek food and seafood. But these are both ideas that they’d like to focus on down the line. Right now their main focus is improving Mamagyro and creating a successful business that Vicki can one day pass on to her daughters.
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