The hostess with the most zest
The core values of the hospitality business haven't changed, according to co-owner of VIVO Cafe Group and public speaker, Angela Vithoulkas
Catching shoplifters stealing lollies from her parents' milkbar and attacking them with a broom, at age three, was Angela Vithoulkas' introduction into the world of business.
"I come from typical Greek parents who have always had their own businesses; my mother went into labour with me while she was making coffee for a customer," Vithoulkas laughs.
At nine years of age Vithoulkas would come home from school every afternoon and make 450 perfectly formed potato scallops, but it never put her off the hospitality industry.
"Many people take over family businesses. My generation of European or migrant children sometimes went into family business because they just didn't know what else to do, but my brother and I actually wanted to do food. It's an unusual occurrence but a very happy privilege that I get to do what I love," Vithoulkas says.
The Sydneysider left school at age 17. "I never finished school. I was in a big hurry to get started on what appeared to be a big wide world," she says. Her father offered her an apprenticeship in his restaurant as long as the kitchen staff didn't know she was his daughter.
"I spent a two year apprenticeship in a kitchen under the world's worst chef, who treated me like a slave because I could fit in the ovens to clean them out because I was little," she says. After two years Vithoulkas' father said she was ready to claim her place and the first thing she did was sack the chef.
Today Vithoulkas and her brother Con, run Vivo Cafe Group. "We've been in actual partnership for 26 years and we still talk!" Vithoulkas jokes.
This comes down to common interests and a grounding in business. "Even though my parents are from a very different business era, fundamentally a lot of things in business haven't changed, there's still the core business values that have not altered via twitter, facebook, the internet, etc.," Vithoulkas says.
Customer service is still the key. "Retail or food are hands on; I can't deliver food via the Internet," she says. Being committed and driven is essential to succeed in hospitality, Vithoulkas says. "We live on deadlines made up of seconds and minutes.
We don't mass produce a vase out of a mould from a machine in a factory; every piece of toast and every piece of grilled salmon and every coffee has to be perfect and I defy any other industry to live up to that kind of standard," she says.
"I love and adore food and coffee, and it's not something I do part-time, it's not something that I delegate; I know what my customer wants.
Many people have their bookshelves filled with crime fiction, mine are filled with cookbooks." Competing against the 469 cafes in Sydney's CBD, Vithoulkas says no other industry has the same kind of competition, "not even hairdressers". "I don't make a product that you can't buy virtually anywhere else.
The competition for what I offer is intense; you walk a few feet and there's another cafe so you can't just be better, you have to be excellent and that shows," she says.
Vithoulkas says cafes will always be the "poorer cousin" of fine dining restaurants, yet cafes serve ten times the volume of restaurants, and serve the same people two or three times a day, getting them to come back time after time.
"They look down on us because we do vegemite toast but try doing it every day to thousands of people," Vithoulkas says.
Regardless, Vithoulkas loves her job. "I'm as excited today about the industry and the product as I was 26 years ago," she says.
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