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A piece of sweet history

Opened in 1962, Hellas Cakes has outlasted and outrun many Greek zaharoplastia in Melbourne

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The Greek recipes have remained unchanged.

When dad rolled up here, he basically got the job on the day and by the end of the day he was offered a partnership - Peter Laliotis
08 September 2014

Even if you may not have visited Hellas Cakes, chances are you've tasted one of their cakes.

The business has been in the hands of Greek migrants for over 50 years and has catered some of Melbourne's most prestigious parties, while also supplying local cafes with their fair share of kourabiethes, baklava and galaktoboureka.

Currently one of the biggest suppliers of koliva and sperna at Greek funerals and memorials, Hellas Cakes is a production line on the weekends, churning out more than 40 individual offerings and delivering them to churches around the state.

It's a labour of love for the business that has always offered the service since its inception.

Founding owner Iraklis Kenos set up the zaharoplastio in 1962 after he migrated from Athens. Already an established pastry chef back home, the business in Australia was set up to cater to the huge demand of Greek migrants living in Melbourne.

As one of the few functioning Greek cake stores in the country at the time, Mr Kenos had the nous to keep recipes unaltered, opening his doors to curious Australians and thankful Greeks.

His business flourished, and when pastry chef George Laliotis came to Australia in 1974, the cake shop would get staying power.

George Laliotis' son, and current owner of the business, Peter Laliotis says his father's early days in Melbourne actually didn't have much to do with his old profession, but soon enough he was brought back to the world of baking.

"When he came here he got a job at Olympic tyres, and working an eight hour shift, he thought it was grouse because in Greece he'd work sunrise to sunset," Peter tells Neos Kosmos.

Not long after that, his father was to happen upon Hellas Cakes. Old acquaintances in Athens, Laliotis found Kenos working in the heart of Richmond.

"When dad rolled up here, he basically got the job on the day and by the end of the day he was offered a partnership," he says.
Kenos was smart enough not to chase such talent away and create an unwilling competitor; so he drew up the papers to make him a partner.

In 1977, George offered another employee, George Kantaras, a partnership offer, and the two continued to work together until their retirement. Now it's in the hands of the next generation, with son Peter taking over the business in 1988 and his partner Andrew Kantaras coming on board in 2004.

Peter's earliest memories are of the store, helping out his father with neverending orders.

"I grew up in here," he says.

"I remember wrapping tsourekia, carrying trays.

"My earliest memory was in 1977, we used to write the date on the vasilopita. I can't remember earlier than that but I remember '77, I was only six at that stage."

He took the business seriously, and became an apprentice at the age of 15 at Hellas Cakes. While working hard, he also studied at the William Angliss Institute.

With his experience, Peter actually took out the best baker award at 19 for the institute, one of the
youngest in Australia to do so.

He would later become the pastry coordinator for the institute, working four days a week teaching the next generation of chefs, and the other three days filling weekend orders at Hellas Cakes.

The hours were brutal, but the experience was invaluable.

At Hellas Cakes, their traditional Greek cakes are still the best sellers, but that doesn't mean the store hasn't changed.

Peter has introduced new additions and adapted to current trends to keep new customers happy and coming back.

"The recipes are very, very similar, some lines have stopped, because some of the stuff like touloumbes today won't sell, they're too heavy, too sweet," Peter says.

"Some are altered, where now we do gluten free or chocolate ganache or a butter cream so it's more light on the palate."

What sets Hellas Cakes apart from the hundreds of Greek cake shops in Melbourne is that it's on the list of some of the biggest food catering companies.

A supplier to Spotless, which feeds 210,000 people a day, Hellas Cakes has supplied thousands of biscuits, baklavas, galaktoboureka, and yo-yos for events.

Clients like Crown Casino and the Melbourne Grand Prix have been Hellas Cakes' regulars.

As well as the big one-off events, Peter and his team of 11 also supply many of the local cafes with scrumptious Greek treats.

Most of the time, the Hellas Cakes staff have no idea where their goods are going, and on more than one occasion, Peter has unknowingly ordered his own creations.

"I actually went to the Portsea Hotel for a day trip, and we couldn't help noticing there was a baklava on the menu," he says.

"Everyone at the table thought it was hysterical I was going to buy a $7 baklava. As the lady was walking towards me I said, 'oh no, that's my baklava'.

"I asked 'Are you sure that you guys make it here?'.

"The girl got a bit embarrassed and said no. I said 'it's OK'. Everyone laughed at the table and said 'this is the sucker who actually made it'.

"It was really funny, but it was expensive."

His family is still intertwined in the business. During big holidays like Easter and Christmas, the family gets called in to help out with the influx of orders.

"Every year it's groundhog day," he says. "Easter and Christmas we supply tsourekia all over Melbourne and Adelaide."

Something they don't like to advertise is their Greek funeral services.

Their koliva and sperna businesses have been a labour of love. At the start, when Peter's father would have it on their distribution list, the effort would far outweigh the profit. They would get more orders for cakes than sperna, but George kept offering it.

Now, the orders for sperna far outweigh their cake orders, making it much more economically viable and a very stable source of income.

At the heart of Hellas Cakes are its customers. Peter has seen generations of families go through their milestones from all their cake orders.

From sweet sixteens, 21st birthdays even to their wedding cakes, Peter has been a part of their celebrations.

That connection is why Peter changed the whole layout of the shop two years ago, opening the front half of the shop to customers to grab a coffee and a cake.

The kitchen is still the pièce de résistance in the building. Double the size of the cafe, the kitchen houses more than six huge ovens, all original from 1962. Peter says they don't make them like they used to, hence why he's been reluctant to upgrade.

Customers also get to have a peek at the huge kitchen when they walk through to get to the toilets, a clever idea from Peter.

Hellas Cakes is both a product of its past and its present. Its customers might be a bit different, but the philosophy is exactly the same.

Hellas Cakes is open seven days, 322 Lennox St, Richmond, Melbourne. Visit www.hellascakes.com.au or phone 03 9428 6805 for more information.

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Comments

Okay I admit a great bias here. Uncle Herakles/ Iraklis was my papou's baby brother. In fact he was only a few years older than my dad so they grew up more like brothers and close mates than uncle and nephew. His wife Kondilia was - in many ways - the soul of his business since she gave so much of her heart to him. Thio loved what he did and for all the years that I was so lucky to know him, he would make and bake and create and experiment and have a great deal of fun in doing so. While he made everything that you can find in the largest zaharoplastea today, I admit that I had two favourites and if I was lucky they were always there at his home when we visited. Yes he made them all - koulouria, 'yo yos', melamokarina, kourambiedes, cakes galore... I drooled over his kataifi and his galaktoboureko. It was like being in heaven when those plates came out. Thio was a professional whose workmanship was never something to take lightly. I recall seeing him in HELLAS Confectionery, which he founded with his son Nick Also famous for managing Stan the Man so well for many years) and son in law Spiros Mandylas, and examining the quality of the sweets they made. If he was not satisfied they just would never ever be put out on the market, instead going to farms for animals to enjoy. They had to be good enough for him and his family or they were not good enough for any family. In the same way when they ran their potato chip business. All the bagging machines were set to guarantee that they would always be that little heavier than the weight stated on the pack so that no customer would ever get less than what they had paid for. Quality was paramount to him and treating all customers and all staff with respect was never in question. I miss those wonderful days and I have never really enjoyed shop bought cakes, sweets and biscuits as much as I did when he was making them.

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