BY BENJAMIN FANG
For the women owners of the 100-year-old coffee company Vassilaros & Sons, looking forward to the future is as important as looking back at its rich history. The College Point-based company was founded in 1919 by John A. Vassilaros, a Greek immigrant from the island of Ikaria.
John Vassilaros worked two jobs as a waiter to support his family. After the birth of his first son, he took on another job as a coffee salesman in Queens. According to Sophia Kasselakis, Vassilaros’s oldest granddaughter, it was actually her grandmother, also named Sophia, who came up with the idea of starting their own coffee business.
“She said to my grandfather, ‘you can’t be an employee anymore,’” Kasselakis said. “You have to start your own business and be your own boss.”
They started Vassilaros & Sons in a little storefront on 34th Street and Third Avenue. Vassilaros would roast the coffee, while Sophia and his sister-in-law, Frosini, packaged bags and bags of a special blend of freshly-roasted coffee. Vassilaros would deliver the coffee to customers, often taking the subway while carrying 40-pound bags on his shoulders.
Eventually, the coffee company, dedicated to quality and built on relationships, flourished and moved to Long Island City. From the outset, founder John Anthony maintained a strong reputation in the Greek community, many of whom were diner and restaurant owners who became lifelong customers. Kasselakis said her grandfather “baptized” nearly 300 children.
He kept an “open house” on Sundays, inviting friends to come over with big pots of food on the stove. They welcomed immigrants from Ikaria and other parts of Greece to come to New York City, many of whom settled in Astoria, where many Greeks lived in community with one another. Vassilaros even gave loans to many of his customers to help them start businesses. During the Great Depression, when many in the Greek community were struggling financially, he helped put many of them to work.
For Vassilaros, community, service and strong values were the foundation of their lives. He and his wife also helped fund the building of the cathedral on East 74th Street Street in Manhattan, and helped to found a much-needed hospital back in Ikaria.
“This is how he established a loyalty base,” Kasselakis said. “Community was the basis of the business.”
Vassilaros’s son, Anthony, came into the business as a young man to help his father, learn the ropes and eventually guide and grow the company. In the late 1950s, at age 13, Kasselakis began commuting with her father to Queens to work at the roastery and the plant in the summer. She worked in the office, while her brother John Anthony, the only son of five children, would help in the back with the roasters.
“Everybody in the family always worked in the company,” she said. “First summers, and then full-time after that.”