Expat Entrepreneurs: Mama Stella’s Story of Greek Baking, Kneaded with Love
Melis Karabulut’s series profiles some of Brno’s foreign entrepreneurs to explore the challenges of running a business in a foreign country. This week, she discovers the journey of Mama Stella, the successful new bakery on Pekarska run by Czech-Greek couple Vendy and Kostas. Photo credit: Mama Stella.
On a cold Saturday afternoon, I visited yet another business founded by an expat entrepreneur – with his Czech girlfriend – for a cup of coffee, some sweet revani and an inspiring, heart-warming conversation about their story. At the first sight of Mama Stella, which takes its name from the baker’s mother, you can already see that it could become that romantic little bakery in the town that you always stop by on your morning or evening commute for a warm cinnamon roll or bread, and you would never be disappointed by whatever you are eating, as it is sprinkled with Greek hospitality.
Vendy Rybičková and Konstantinos Karaiskos are on this baking journey together, referring to Mama Stella as their ‘first child’. In every corner of the bakery you can see their hard work and gentle touch; it is as if the place speaks to you to tell you about their commitment, trust, and belief in each other. Accordingly, the story of the bakery cannot be understood without the story of their relationship.
Vendy and Konstantinos, formerly IT workers, met on the Facebook Dating App, and had their first date on a Friday less than a year ago. “And on Saturday, I invited him over for a party at my place. From Sunday, I guess we never separated. We started building the idea for this place together from the moment I found out about his dream of opening a bakery. We just clicked in every aspect, not only being a couple, but also being business partners,” says Vendy. “Trust was never a question or issue between us. It just came naturally,” she adds, as they show me the matching tattoos on their arms, symbolizing their relationship, wheat, baking, trust, love and Mama Stella.
The story goes back to Konstantinos’ decision to take two years of baking classes at a vocational school when he was still living in Greece. Since he was unemployed and he felt lost about what to do, he decided to go to a vocational training school to train as a chef, but life’s odds led him to become a baker. “I had no experience in baking until the first lesson at the school. It caught me totally off guard. In the second lesson, I was already in love with it,” says Kostas.
He started working at a bakery in Greece, doing something he was good at and passionate about. Yet, after two years, he quit his job there due to the heavy workload and unfair working conditions. “There was no other option for me than starting a new life somewhere else, because getting a decent job back then was difficult in my country,” he says. “My experience has been that if you are an employee in the food industry in Greece, the employers are rude to you, you are underpaid, you can be replaced anytime.”
Konstantinos relocated to Brno in 2015, first working in IT support. His brother, who moved to Brno in 2012, encouraged him to make a fresh start in the Czech Republic. Although Kostas ended up in a totally different sector than baking, he was able to climb the ladder gradually, become a manager, and doing quite well in the IT sector. Nonetheless, his dream to be a baker was still there, ringing bells in his mind that it was time to do something. “Baking was what I wanted to do in life. My work as a manager in the IT sector did not intrinsically motivate me. Whenever a friend or family member asked me what I wanted to do with my life eventually, I answered the same: To open up a bakery. I had already been baking bread and other things at home for years, experimenting, and giving them to friends as presents. I was just too insecure to take the first step towards it, until I met Vendy,” he emphasises. “I met her, and two or three days after meeting, we started to make actual plans to make this baking dream come true,”.
Kostas stresses that even though his family were a bit skeptical at first about him leaving his job and becoming an entrepreneur, he set his mind to it and convinced them that the project would be successful. “I knew that if I had not done it, I would have regretted it for my entire life,” he says, stressing that his friends in Brno have been a real support.
Although the bakery has been up and running and busy for about two months now, he was only able to terminate his IT work a week ago, which was overwhelming for the couple with the bakery work. “Until my contract ended, I was coming to the bakery at 3 am to prepare the bread, then go to sleep, then we would open the bakery early in the morning. Around 3 pm, I had to start working on my computer in the kitchen for my tasks at the IT company, until 11.30 pm. Crazy times! I feel much more refreshed and get some proper sleep, and I can be more productive and focused on the bakery now,” says Konstantinos, adding that even though he had to handle two jobs for a long while now, he still wanted to open the bakery as soon as possible and keep the business running.
He adds that Vendy has also put a huge amount of work into the bakery from the beginning. “All the burden of making phone calls, dealing with paperwork, finding workers to reconstruct the place… All of that is on Vendy, as she is the Czech-speaker. She is the accountant, manager, head waitress, and barista of Mama Stella, and I am the baker.”
Later on I asked Konstantinos about the specialities of Mama Stella. “The product that makes everyone go crazy is the cinnamon rolls with vanilla custard on top, and our sourdough breads are also very popular. I have been working on improving my bread for many years. Some businesses in the neighborhood are buying bread from us as well. We have different types of bread, such as wheat, rye with sesame, cheddar and jalapeno, oat bread with porridge, focaccia, and so on. You need to come a little early, because especially at the weekends, an unstoppable wave of customers flood into the bakery!”
“The kitchen is not yet fully operating to make delicate pastries, but we are trying to improve it day by day. Currently we are only able to make cinnamon rolls or some Greek cakes to fulfill the ‘need for sweet’, but hopefully we will do more in the future.” The couple adds that to prepare most of their products, they prefer using local ingredients, while they have to import some things like the Greek coffee, and some of the spices.
I ask the couple whether they get overwhelmed by the high demand from the customers. Konstantinos knocks on the wood, and tells me, “The customer interest has been amazing so far. Most of the time, we sell everything before closing time. We are open seven days a week, so we don’t get to rest a lot. Yet we are extremely proud of it. We never thought that it would come this far in such a short time. People also told us that in the first months we would struggle, but we cannot bake enough to meet the demand!” The couple adds that most of their customers are foreigners, especially Greeks, but now they have started attracting Czechs as well. “Czechs are a bit more traditional with their choice of bread, but slowly they are opening up to trying new flavors. Now we have some old Czech regulars coming to buy our bread almost every day, which we really did not expect. The local people in the neighborhood helped us a lot to advertise our business, which we deeply appreciate,” says Konstantinos.
Because they were so busy dealing with opening, quitting their previous jobs, and handling all the details of the bakery, they have not even had a chance to have an official opening of Mama Stella! Konstantinos tells me that these are the details that they need to think about in the future, as they are getting more employee support in the bakery day by day.
As I dig deeper into the process of opening the bakery, which has been some solid work for the couple and their family and friends, they tell me that the paperwork of opening a business in the Czech Republic is not as hard as people might think. “While getting a business license, you can even ask for an English-speaking consultant at public offices now. Everything is pretty much online. Things are changing, getting better,” says Konstantinos, adding that “The real issue is finding workers for the reconstruction. Almost everything that the customers can see here in the bakery is our handmade work. I used to help my dad at his work, who is a plumber, and I even put the pipes and built the water system here in the bakery myself. We even had to ask for a Greek worker to come from Olomouc! If I hadn’t known how to handle the plumbing, we would not have been able to open up the business this easily. But I think that this process brought me and Wendy closer.” One funny fact I learn from the couple is that according to city legends, the bakery is the geographical center of Brno, and a figure on the original floor tiles of the bakery symbolizes that!
Mama Stella: a Greek bakery in the geographical centre of Brno. Photo credit: Mama Stella.
The future plans of Mama Stella include organizing some wine-tasting events with Greek wines, as they will be able to use the bakery’s pleasant front garden. “We will create a warm, Mediterranean environment with lights, tables outside, Greek wine, ham and cheese to show our customers a nice summer evening,” says Vendy. “We want to expand the menu a bit more, but we want to remain as a bakery,” adds Konstantinos. “We don’t want to turn into a Greek tavern, or a place where people come to get drunk. We have a kids corner here, therefore we would like to keep things within a certain boundary. We wouldn’t like to lose the identity of the place.”
As a part of this identity, the couple says they care about treating their customers with the warmth and welcoming approach of the South, and of Greece. They offer free water to each customer, welcome them with a smile and ask about their day, which brings them closer to their customers.
Mama Stella can be found on Kopečná 382/50, just a few steps away from Silingrovo Namesti. The visitors can enjoy their products every day, usually from 8am to 6.30pm.