If you aren’t already familiar with the name Vassilaros & Sons as it relates to coffee, you’re probably behind the curve. The iconic company is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and that’s truly something to raise a glass (or, in this case, a cup) to.
The story of Vassilaros & Sons is a true American immigrant success story. Founder John Vassilaros emigrated from the island of Ikaria, in Greece’s Aegean, where people reportedly live past 100. “John started this business out of his home because he felt that he could make a cup of coffee,” Alexandra Vassilaros, executive vice president and owner, said. “He left to mine possibilities in America. He was a true immigrant seeking a better life. He was very dynamic and entrepreneurial.” That better life came to fruition in America. This is a classic tale of the American Dream, realized.
John Vassilaros—whose grandson, also named John, recently passed away, leaving his wife Alexandra the sole owner of the company—employed fellow Greeks in his burgeoning business. He sold his first coffees in Manhattan, and delivered them by hand, the subway his main form of transportation. “He used to hand out cigars to all the dishwashers, thinking that one day all these guys are going to own all of their own businesses, and I’m going to supply them coffee.” As it turned out, John Vassilaros was right about that.
The name itself, Vassilaros & Sons, was actually a misprint. John Vassilaros had only one son, and the plural was both an accident and a foretelling. “A printer made a mistake,” Alexandra Vassilaros said. “And then we had all sons. It’s one of the beautiful parts of the story.” She and the younger John have three grown boys, all of whom share one middle name: John. When the younger John passed away, in 2015, Alexandra stepped up. “The idea of selling seemed impossible,” Alexandra said. “It seemed like it would be another loss, a disconnect with his legacy.”
How does a coffee business make it through an entire century without collapse? The key, according to its owners and employees, is quality and relationships. “We were very attentive to the needs of our customers,” Alexandra said. “We’re very tried-and-true and there’s a lot of loyalty, and we have loyalty to our customers and they have loyalty to us.” That loyalty has been key in strengthening a business that is now older than most people.
Vassilaros, whether or not you are conscious of it, has been a subdued player in the coffee market forever. You may not even know you’re drinking Vassilaros, John Moore, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, pointed out. “Millions of cups of our coffee are consumed in the New York region, and yet barely anyone knows they’re drinking our coffee,” he said. The company’s success, as Moore sees it, is about “owning our past and celebrating our past, but also looking to the future, and changing how we look at the marketplace.” As Alexandra Vassilaros says, “If you get through 100 years, you’ve got to be doing something right. There’s got to be a lot of love energizing that company, and effort. And then, you keep updating it.”
So how does a company with a classic immigrant narrative and an old school sensibility come of age in the era of trendy niche coffee? They keep looking forward. In celebration of their centennial, Vassilaros will be releasing coffee for retail in the coming months. “We have this incredible story built into our brand, and we’ve been successful as the traditional wholesaler, and we let our customers speak for ourselves,” John Moore said. But Vassilaros is ready to start publicizing how great their coffee is. Bringing their coffee into the homes of their customers will be a game-changer for this established company. Long Islanders will soon have the opportunity to brew this iconic, centennial coffee in their own homes.
Vassilaros & Sons is more than just a successful immigrant story, of course. They also represent what happens when women take charge. “We are now women-owned, women leaning in, women dedicating themselves to the men who ran the company,” Alexandra said. In 2019, that’s a story in and of itself.