Despo Georgiou grew up in war-torn Cyprus, a small island on the Mediterranean Sea with stunning views and a history of political unrest.
Today, 58-year-old Georgiou runs Despina’s Cafe in a North Raleigh storefront, where she bakes and sells baklava and other treats made from scratch. But her story – and her dream to bring joy to people through food – began halfway around the world.
She fled violence in the 1970s with her parents and six siblings with nothing but a car and one suitcase.
Turkey invaded Cyrpus in 1974, splitting the island in half politically. Georgiou’s family fled to the independent side of the island, and her mother turned a shack by the sea into a popular seafood restaurant.
“My mother was a great cook, but she couldn’t bake,” Georgiou said.
Georgiou was interested in baking early on, but her family couldn’t afford baking supplies. She picked up most of her baking skills when she moved to England at the age of 18 to study English at college.
There, she saw baking chocolate in the pantry of her relatives’ home. She asked her aunt if she could bake a cake. The rest, she said, was history.
Chocolate became one of Georgiou’s favorites. At Despina’s Cafe, customers can choose from several chocolate options.
Georgiou dreamed of having her own shop since she moved to the Triangle in 1996. She found a spot at the corner of Creedmoor and Strickland roads, but customers warned her that the location was a revolving door of small businesses.
The cafe opened a year ago, and Georgiou isn’t giving up on serving handmade Greek-inspired goods.
“I had this planned for years and years,” she said. “I have a huge library in my brain. I want to make different things.”
A family effort
During her nine years in England, Georgiou didn’t just perfect her baking skills. She also started a family.
Her husband, Panos, grew up in England but was originally from Cyprus. Their families were close, and the couple returned to Cyprus for a year before Panos got an offer to move to Canada for work in 1987.
“We thought it was a chance of a lifetime,” Georgiou said.
They stayed in Canada until 1996, when they moved to Cary with their three children – George, Michael and Ria.
Soon, Cary became too crowded for them. Although Georgiou came from an island full of what she calls “the most beautiful beaches in the world,” she loved North Carolina’s trees and nature. So she and her husband moved to Wake Forest in hopes of finding a little more open space.
Even though Despina’s Cafe is Georgiou’s dream, it has become a family effort. Her husband and children offered support when Georgiou was unsure if she was ready to hear feedback from customers.
“I spent almost all my life raising my kids, so to face the people was hard,” she said.
Her family also helps in more tangible ways. Her husband handles the business finances, her son-in-law created a website, and her daughters help make the menus.
All the help allows Georgiou to spend time doing what she loves: baking.
She spends most days at the cafe, baking treats in time for breakfast and cleaning past the 6 p.m. closing time.
“It’s kind of a family business, but I’m the only one here,” Georgiou said.