Shop Talk

Woman starts Despina's Cafe from scratch at the age of 57

Despina Georgiou, far right, opened Despina Cafe at 57, and makes all of the restaurant’s dishes from scratch. She works with her family, including Mike Georgiou, from left to right, Pete Peranzo, Ria Peranzo, 4-month-old Nicholas Georgiou, Marianne Georgiou, George Georgiou and her husband Panos Georgiou, who’s holding grandson Alexander Georgiou.
Despina Georgiou, far right, opened Despina Cafe at 57, and makes all of the restaurant’s dishes from scratch. She works with her family, including Mike Georgiou, from left to right, Pete Peranzo, Ria Peranzo, 4-month-old Nicholas Georgiou, Marianne Georgiou, George Georgiou and her husband Panos Georgiou, who’s holding grandson Alexander Georgiou. TERI SAYLOR

For most of her life, Despina Georgiou dreamed of creating delicious recipes and showcasing her talent for baking beautiful cakes and pastries.

But instead, she raised a family, setting her career aspirations aside until 2014, when, at the age of 57, she opened Despina's Cafe in the Towne North Shopping Center in Raleigh.

Not only is this her first venture in entrepreneurship, it's her first full-time job.

"I spent my life focused on my kids and I never thought opening a cafe would even be possible," she said, while sitting at a table in the small, bright cafe that's decorated with framed artwork she painted and earthy stone wall and mirror she designed herself.

While Despina's Cafe will be celebrating its first anniversary Feb. 16, the business has been in the works for more than five years.

"When I started this journey, I was a younger woman," she said with a laugh. "Now that this dream has become a reality, I am five years older."

She's not showing any signs of slowing down, working 12-hour days, six days a week.

Everything is made from scratch - nothing is premade. She crafts her pastries to order, stocking her cafe's racks with fresh cakes and other sweets daily.

Georgiou gestures toward a large carrot cake she spent three hours crafting, right down to the freshly grated carrots she used in the batter.

Georgiou also prepares breakfast foods, salads, soups and sandwiches for the cafe that's everything she dreamed it would be.

Georgiou was born and raised in Cyprus and often helped out in her family's restaurant, which her mother owned and managed until she was 75 years old.

"The restaurant was called "Glaros," which is Greek for "seagull," Georgiou said. "It was located in a beautiful spot near the sea."

Her mother has since passed away, and she also has lost her only sister, who died at 64 after a struggle with breast cancer. Despina's Cafe is, in a way, a tribute to her sister, whose death taught her to appreciate her own life.

"As long as I am alive, I will follow my dreams and do what I want to do," she said. "It doesn't matter how old I am. As long as you have your health you can do anything."

While Georgiou depends on her four part-time employees, she especially enjoys her family's support and involvement in the cafe.

Her husband, Panos, helps on Saturdays. Her son, Mike, and son-in-law, Pete Peranzo, who own Web design and digital marketing company Imaginovation, helped her with her online presence.

When customers show up at Despina's counter, they are met with classic Greek favorites such as baklava and spanikopita, made from the recipes Georgiou grew up creating. She also serves European and American dishes such as chicken pot pie, grilled cheese sandwiches and a variety of soups and salads.

Her signature pastry is a snow-white almond cake. She loves it when customers come in just to get a slice - or an entire cake.

For Georgiou, the scariest part of opening day was coming face to face with her first customer, but as she approaches her second year in business, she is looking forward to welcoming more customers and building a catering business.

While it might have been easier for Georgiou to get a job in a bakery or buy into a franchise, she has no regrets.

"I want to take destiny in my own hands rather than rely on someone else," she said.

She has learned to appreciate her life and owning her bakery, both made all the sweeter with her family by her side.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer and owns Open Water Communications in Raleigh. Reach her at terisaylor@hotmail.com and tweet her @terisaylor

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