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When Alexandra Vassilaros was 18 years old, her Greek grandmother read her fortune in the bottom of a Greek-style cup of coffee. The reading was conclusive: Alexandra would fall in love and get married (of course), have 3 girls and stay married for a long time—a solid yet predictable reading. But, at the time, neither Alexandra nor her Yaiyai understood just how accurate and ironic the prediction would prove to be. For that, they would have had to pay attention not to the interpretation of the coffee grounds, but to the actual coffee itself. It was the same brand of coffee that Alexandra’s grandmother, and the rest of her family, drank every day for years: Vassilaros Coffee.
That’s how our fated story begins—fated not only for Alexandra, on a personal level, but for all the coffee-drinkers in the tri-state area who have made Vassilaros their go-to coffee, probably without even knowing it. Because just as Alexandra didn’t know which brand of coffee was in her grandmother’s cup that day, you likely never knew which coffee was in your iconic ‘We Are Happy to Serve You’ cup either. At the time, it was just a delicious cup of coffee you grabbed from a corner cart on your way into work; or coffee you sipped at the end of a delicious dinner; or strong, black coffee you enjoyed at an old-school New York diner, post-party at 3 a.m.
If it was tasty and full-bodied, it was probably Vasillaros.
Eleven years after her grandmother read her fortune, at a Greek-American gathering of relatives from the island of Ikaria, Alexandra actually met the coffee-man himself: John Vassilaros, who would become her husband and, as predicted, the father of her three children, Andonis, Luka and Stefanos (all boys, the only detail her grandmother’s prediction got wrong). Their marriage would prove to be a partnership as ultimately fruitful as it was initially fated. John Anthony Vassilaros was the president and third generation operator of Vassilaros Coffee Company; his grandfather, also named John Anthony Vassilaros, founded the company as a first-generation immigrant, also from the island of Ikaria, Greece, in 1919.
At the time that she met her husband, Alexandra couldn’t have been farther away from being an insider in the coffee world. While they dated she also was hard at work on a new play that would premiere at the celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, with Laurie Metcalf in the lead role. (She had the lucky distinction of having all her plays produced On and Off Broadway and would later become a co-finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.)
It was this shared sense of grit, Greek-ness and a mutual desire to make a joyful and productive life together that attracted John and Alexandra from the start. They discovered that some of the same ideals that inspired John’s grandfather to found Vassilaros Coffee Company in 1919 were similar to the creative gusto that compelled Alexandra to write plays and that also propelled John Anthony, the younger, to carry on and grow the family coffee business.
Both John and Alexandra were driven by a desire to make something of quality, to make something memorable and satisfying come to life, whether it was a provocative night in the theatre or the comfort of a delicious cup of coffee.
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“We shared a great admiration for each other’s work and we were grounded by so much shared heritage”, says Alexandra, noting that both her and her husband’s grandparents immigrated from the same town on the same island in Greece. “When my husband’s grandfather left Greece to come here, he made a promise to build a productive life for himself and his family. ‘I will do well for us’ was the silent credo that compelled him. But that ‘us’ wasn’t limited to himself and his immediate family. It was extended to his family of friends, relatives, colleagues and new immigrants also trying to find their way in America. Helping others was just what our founders, John and his wife, Irene Vassilaros, did reflexively. It wasn’t just a ‘nice idea’ for appearance’s sake or any kind of strategic play; philanthropy, a Greek word meaning love of humanity, was natural to them. They were welcoming and helpful to dozens and dozens of new immigrants, literally fresh off the boat. It was how they fulfilled their own humanity.”
And so, just like that, the permeating aroma of freshly roasting coffee became the culling and dependable backdrop of Johnny and Alexandra’s life together, as they raised their growing boys and pursued their respective careers.
That is, until there was a stark interruption the day John was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. After several years of rigorous treatments, he passed away in 2015, leaving Alexandra to tend to her and her 3 sons’ mighty sense of loss, grief and disorientation.
“Johnny was larger than life, a dynamic father and husband, so his absence was palpable and hard to navigate,” she says.
Compounding the complexity of her grief, Alexandra also found herself having to make serious decisions regarding the future of the company her husband left behind. After two years of teamwork from the extended Vassilaros family she decided to lean in herself. With help from other key people at the company and beyond, she did a deep dive on the details of what was working, what could work better and even considered whether or not the family would even remain in the business at all.
“For better or for worse, it was hard to resist the facts of our attachment to Johnny and the company itself which he led for the last 30 years. I mean, my kids grew up with coffee practically in their DNA, and one day, I got the message loud and clear. I was in my car headed to our roasting plant in Queens and I caught sight of one of our silver coffee vans streaming down Third Avenue to a delivery, our logo painted boldly on the side of the truck. I read and registered our company’s name: Vassilaros . . . and Sons. That was our name. And sons? I had three of them! I think that was the day I was all in. The name said it all. So, with guidance from experienced colleagues and friends within the industry, I picked up the baton and tried to walk, skip and run with it. It’s hard to fathom but even the aroma of freshly roasted coffee was reassuring every day. The people who worked there were familiar to me, the employees who gave their best for decades supported me and in spite of undeniable challenges, moving the company forward became my main focus.”
Since then, Alexandra has tried to refresh and reinforce the values that defined Vassilaros from the start: with special attention to continued quality, consistency and service. Together with John Moore, the company’s new CEO, whose respected breadth and depth of experience in the coffee world helped Alexandra stabilize the business, Vassilaros has begun to make real progress.
“In spite of Covid-19, which has choked the restaurant industry—many of our favorite customers are hurting badly and shutting their doors for good—we pivoted to speed up our new retail line, which we are very excited about especially for grocery channels that have been responding enthusiastically. In addition to our classic tried-and-true blend, we developed an array of roast profiles and new packaging for loyal and new customers. Chef’s Warehouse recently added Vassilaros Coffee, one of only two coffee companies they offer to their prestigious, carefully selected roster of food purveyors. Vassilaros is also developing new online initiatives to reach new customers, in and out of their home-base region. In this volatile landscape we are especially grateful to the loyal customers who got us here and we are building on that valuable foundation. We are so proud of our coffee, and our track-record, that we finally felt that we should let people know what they’ve been drinking. That’s not just a ubiquitous cup of coffee—that’s a cup of Vassilaros. Immigrant grown and now woman-owned, we all say it proudly: ‘We want to be the cup that starts your day . . . everyday.’”
True to its roots and ready for the future, Vassilaros & Sons is proof that, yes, the Hamilton line is true: Immigrants—they get the job done. And for Vassilaros, they’re getting it done, as always, in the borough of Queens, which has the distinction of being the most culturally diverse urban area on the planet (a fact in which Alexandra takes great pride).
“Queens is the best advertisement for why diversity is so important and why it works,” she says. “Good will and inclusion is celebrated here every single day. We are the practical, living, breathing, and best example of how well different people, from different parts of the world, can live, work and thrive together.”
As a company, Vassilaros remains just as motivated to work with its community as it was at its inception. Alexandra founded the Make Meaning Workshop, a process she curated to help people, who have recently suffered a loss, metabolize their grief and mine their own resiliency through writing. She also serves on the board of The 52nd Street Project, where there is a working Vassilaros Coffee Bar, “The Johnny Coffeeshopolis,” which is dedicated to providing job experience for kids, between eight and 17, in Hell’s Kitchen. For the past seven years Alexandra has also shared her talent for writing by leading healing writing workshops for women-in-residence at NYC’s The Bowery Mission Women’s Center. Vassilaros Coffee also made coffee donations at The Bowery Mission and for essential workers on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
Right after her husband’s death, Alexandra spent a lot of time thinking about how she might go from “being broken by loss to perhaps being… broken open.”
“And so I just kept thinking of my husband and how he always used to say: ‘Drinking our coffee is like coming home to an old friend,’” she says. “And in that way, the answer for me was in the coffee all along. People who roast coffee as a profession generally have a die-hard passion for the whole process, from bean-to-cup …and in my case the cup was anointed by a legacy of love, that is indivisible from the coffee itself.”
“This is something I have learned the hard way—as we all do,” Alexandra continues. “Our beloveds pass away, but their legacy, their contribution, doesn’t have to. And even though these kinds of losses feel impossible to accept, their death might hold within it an invitation to at least wonder what the opportunity could be. What can be found even in their absence? Loss.. and found, it’s at least something to think about. Coffee is the elixir of my family; it’s the magic potion that gets us through the day, our delicious drug of choice, shared by thousands, millions over this century. I mean, it’s literally our wake-up call everyday – beginning with my grandmother predicting my future in a little cup of Vassilaros, right up until this moment,” she says, taking a sip of Vassilaros cold-brew on ice. “It’s a homecoming. For me and for my family, it’s always a homecoming.”
It’s no wonder, then, that for entire generations of New Yorkers, Vassilaros coffee simply tastes like home. Like what you drink at a place that truly is happy to serve you. It’s the people’s cup of coffee. Or as ardent fan and comedian Lewis Black puts it: “It’s spectacular, it’s a miracle in a cup, for God’s Sake.”
For more on Vassilaros, or to purchase some of their legendary coffee, please visit their website. Use code ‘Edible’ with your purchase to unlock our exclusive ‘buy one, get one free’ partnership.