Little Athens: New wave of Greek immigrants in Astoria

April 5th, 2018  |  Published in Community, slider

Greek flags welcome visitors to the Astoria section of Queens, and homes cast of marble and stone pay homage to the ancient islands. A few trendy beer gardens and halls have cropped up, slightly altering the historic Greek landscape. But right between Ditmars Boulevard and 21st Street sits Victory Sweet Shop and Victory Garden Cafe, a family-owned establishment that’s been serving up Greek fare since 1968.

Victory Sweet Shop and Garden Cafe. Photo: Courtesy of Victory Sweet Shop.

“The neighborhood has definitely changed since I grew up here,” said Anna Sakalis, co-owner of Victory. “But I wouldn’t say it’s worse. Honestly, I think it’s for the better.”

In the 1960s, Astoria had the highest number of Greeks outside of Greece itself. They came in droves, opening up gyro shops, traditional Greek restaurants, bakeries and cafes. Fast forward to 2015, where Astoria came in at number 11 on the list of New York City’s quickest gentrifying neighborhoods, according to the NYU Furman Center’s yearly report.

“Gentrification is such a bad word. I don’t like that word. Astoria has always been and still is very Greek,” said Florence Koulouris, district manager of Astoria. “But we’ve also always celebrated diversity. And yes, Astoria is changing, but that’s the nature of New York. What is New York if it’s not changing?”

In 2016, the Immigration Advocacy Services that serves Astoria saw a 50 percent increase in Greek clients. 

“The Greek community which was leaving in the late 80s, early 90s is actually beginning to come back because of the crisis in Greece,” Sakalis said. “I’m very happy to see them come here and live their American dream.”

Amygdalota, a Greek almond cookies that are slightly crisp on the outside and chewy and sweet on the inside. Photo: Courtesy of Victory Sweet Shop.

After graduating Fordham University with a master’s degree in economics, Sakalis had a brief stint at a hedge fund before returning to her roots, working alongside her parents at Victory.

The Sakalis family purchased the building when they bought the bakery  in 1968— this means they aren’t as vulnerable to unknown factors, like a changing landlord or a sudden hike in rent. In 2015  Time Warner took over the site of an old Greek bakery, where they now pay $38,000 a month in rent— forcing Lefkos Pyrgos Cafe to move a few blocks away. That same year, a Greek seafood restaurant, Okeanos, shut down.

“Astoria still has a small business feel,” Koulouris said. “A lot of second generation Greeks are opening up restaurants now too. They’re changing the menu to have Greek food with a modern, American twist, but there are still a ton of Greek owned and operated establishments.”

Sakalis is a first-generation Greek American who grew up in Astoria in the late 80s. She went to an all-Greek school and spent most of her afternoons at Victory— watching her parents bake and serve.

Traditional Greek Easter bread. Photo: Courtesy of Victory Sweet Shop.

Both of her parents come from Greece. Her father, George, comes from the isle of Nisyros, where he began working with desserts at the age of 13, as an apprentice. Once he settled in Queens he bought Victory, which at that time was a small, Greek-owned cafe serving a couple of desserts. He decided to expand the menu, showcasing traditional Greek deserts that they would later become known for, like tsoureki bread— a sweet bread, known as Greek Easter bread. 

In 2012 they decided to do yet another expansion, and open their garden restaurant where they serve items like loukaniko, traditional Greek sausage, and thalassinos mezes, which is mussles, clams, shrimp and calamari over a Greek risotto. George Sakalis, even at 69, is still the head baker, and his wife, Antigoni, is the head chef. They’re happy with the addition of the Garden Cafe, and are prepared to stay put for the time being.

George Sakalis sits with his grandson in Victory Sweet Shop and Garden Cafe. Photo: Courtesy of Victory Sweet Shop.

Victory also employs several Greeks, including Apostles Koustautoglou, a 31-year-old who comes from the city of Veria. After arriving in New York two and a half years ago, he found Victory and has been a server ever since.

“New York City is a big city full of many opportunities,” Apostolos Koustautoglou said. “For me, it’s important to take care of people, to connect with them. To see and travel the world.”

Now the mother of a two-year-old son, Anna Sakalis spends her days coordinating events at Victory, helping her parents, and making sure the shop runs smoothly. As she sits with three women discussing the details of their party, her son sits a few tables over with his grandfather— among the sweet breads and almond cookies. 

“I had such a great childhood. I have so many memories growing up here,” Sakalis said. “I just want the same thing for my son.”

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