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“Do you have oat milk?”
When Ioannis Blentzas, better known to friends as Yanni, a former sports marketing executive left his job of 17 years, he never thought he’d hear the phrase so many times in a day.
At his former corporate job, an advertising sales service called PSP Sports, Blentzas was dealing with unexpected anxiety. Since launching his own dream business, it has all but evaporated. Blentzas is now the proud owner and founder of newly launched coffee shop Yanni’s Coffee on 16th Street and 7th Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
Born into a big Greek family of immigrants, Blentzas grew up in Queens. His mother and father came to New York with nothing, started a furrier business (just a few blocks up the very same street from Yanni’s Coffee) and ran a successful business for 35 years. “I’m me because of them,” Blentzas says. His Grecian roots inspired his desire to create the perfect cup of coffee. He’d travel to visit family-owned beach cafes in Greece every summer, sipping espresso by the sea. “You feel a part of something. My goal was to have a cool coffee shop, keep it simple, be friendly and nice and offer that Greek hospitality.”
In his new role as a coffee shop owner and operator, Blentzas wakes up at 5:15 a.m. He stays in the store until 8 p.m. He’s a barista, baker, cookie maker, stool mover, cleaner, coffee brewer and floor sweeper. Physically, he has almost adjusted to the toll—in the past three weeks since opening, he’s lost 12 pounds from the labor. The shop doors open at 7 a.m. to a crowd of eager drinkers. Right now, six die-hard fans wait every morning for their cold brew or latte. But the shop is getting busier and busier every day.
The day of our interview was his fiancée, Effie Veres’s, birthday. They’ve been engaged for almost two years, living together for eight and planned to get married last summer when the couple hit a roadblock. As the lease was being signed for the shop, Veres was diagnosed with cancer. The process came to a halt while the couple anxiously waited for a prognosis. It was advanced, Stage 3. She would need proton radiation treatment in New Jersey for 36 consecutive days.
“Life is short, and you’ll never know what will happen tomorrow," Blentzas says. "Instead of backing away, it made me push harder toward our goal.” Veres is waiting for her hair to grow back fully to host their wedding.
The shop's new cookie baker—a recent hire to alleviate some of Blentzas’ daily workload—interrupts to ask if he’s mixing the batter well. Blentzas spent a year perfecting his prized recipe, much like the recipe for this perfect coffee shop. The cookies are divine.
When asked about the practical, daunting steps of launching a brick and mortar business in the city, Blentzas states, “Step one: Spend your life saving your money. Then, find a location. I walked up and down every block and avenue below 40th Street looking for the perfect space.” Originally, Blentzas wasn’t wooed by this location but kept coming back for the wide footprint and floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Then, you get a lawyer, negotiate a deal, incorporate a business, find an architect, contractor and reach out to designers.” The process took about a year. When construction was about to start, Effie’s treatment began and Blentaz quit his corporate job once and for all.
“Looking back, if I would’ve known the hardships I would face, I might’ve hesitated more. I haven’t even had a chance to reflect yet.”
With a brand new business underway, Blentzas’s advice for the entrepreneur is solid. He says, “Study what you want to do, study the competition. Use the internet and visit places. Why are those places successful? The layout, the vibe, the culture? Learn every in and out of your business and every little piece of information. Come up with a plan. And after that, you need to be certain that you can provide a better service and hospitality than every single other guy out there. Never veer off from your initial goal. You’re going to get everyone’s two cents: Your mom, dad, brother, contractors, significant others, some guy on the street. And it’s not going to go with the research that you did. If you’ve convinced yourself that your plan will work, stick to that. Every bad decision I’ve ever made was because I listened to someone else for a mere second. Do your homework, and stick to your gut. Don’t lose focus.”
Blentzas is following his own advice now, hard at work behind the counter at 96 7th Avenue in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, right by the downtown Barney’s. Make sure to try one of his homemade cookies, their best-selling latte and ask him about Greece.
Read the full article here on ONE37pm.