Victory Sweet Shop at 21-69 Steinway Street has been around for 48 years, run by the Sakalis family, who has roots in Rhodes and Nisyros, two islands in Greece.
The bakery opened in 1968, serving tsoureki, or Greek sweet bread, along with popular sweets like baklava, kataifi and galaktobouriko, a creamy custard that is their biggest seller. The store also features a Greek spinach pie and cheese pie, among other desserts.
Almost four years ago, the family bought the adjacent building and converted it into their own café. The Victory Garden Café features an assortment of Mediterranean foods and drinks. With bigger, decorative rooms available in the back, the cafe doubles as an event space for bridal showers, weddings and other types of events.
Despite the many changes happening in the neighborhood, Victory Sweet Shop has stayed true to its character. It’s a community oriented family business, one that started with George Sakalis’ arrival in America.
Sakalis, now 67, first came to the United States when he was 18 years old. Born in Nisyros, he settled in Astoria, where there is still a strong Greek presence in the community.
“As soon as I finished school, I came here and I started working in a factory,” Sakalis said. “I was making gears for the airplanes for Vietnam, for different types of tools. I worked there for two years, and this way I didn’t go to Vietnam.”
His next stop was Dannon, the yogurt company, where he worked as a pasteurizer. In 1968, Sakalis and his father saw a storefront on 23rd Avenue for sale. They bought it and opened up a small Greek bakery.
“Before it was like a luncheonette. Around 1953, [the owner] came back from Korea after the war and opened that store,” Sakalis said. “He named it Victory because they won the war. I kept the same name.”
Sakalis comes from a long line of bakers. His grandfather owned a bakery in Greece, and he often worked with his uncles to learn the craft.
“My whole family was in this business,” he said. “Me, my uncles, my grandpa. It’s about 150 years.”
Nine years after he first arrived in the United States, Sakalis went back to Greece for a 45-day vacation. It was during that time when he met and married Antigoni, his wife, who lived in Rhodes.
Sakalis was staying with his uncle during the trip, and Antigoni’s older sister was living on the top floor. When Sakalis saw her on a balcony one day, he knew he wanted to meet her.
They subtly met and sat for coffee. Realizing that he only had two weeks left before going back to America, Sakalis made a big decision: he asked to marry her.
“My mom didn’t have too much time to think,” said Anna Sakalis, George and Antigoni’s daughter, who also runs the bakery. “They actually got married in a rush.”
“My mom felt the best way to actually get to know him was to come with him, and she felt the person she saw right from the start was who he was,” she added. “He was honest and he had a good sense of humor. She felt confident in making that decision in 14 days.”
Almost two months later, Antigoni arrived in the United States, joining her husband in the bakery.
George and Antigoni Sakalis do all of baking together. Anna said the reason they were so successful was that they communicated well.
“They have the same motivation, the same ambition,” Anna said. “They get along well and they have the same goals.”
Anna runs the management aspect of the business, including event planning and wholesale retail. She studied economics and computer science in college and later worked at a hedge fund, but she was always coming back to help out on weekends and holidays.
Eventually, she decided to come back to the bakery and help run it with her parents.
In 1986, the Sakalis family moved the bakery to Steinway Street. Since then, they’ve established a relationship with the community, especially loyal customers who keep coming back.
“What our customers like is we built a relationship over time, we’re a family business,” Anna said. “You’ll see that when customers come in, they’ll always ask to see my mother, my father. They like the fact that they’re the ones making everything.”
Anna said the relationships they make are key to staying in the community. She said that when she walks down the street, she sees many of her customers.
“I see all these people that we know,” she said. “After so many years, it’s so nice to see familiar faces. I like the fact that we’re the oldest Greek bakery around. I can’t ever picture us moving away from this area.”
Anna said despite the changes in the community, she likes Astoria because its core values have stayed the same.
“At least the main idea of Astoria has remained the same, more of a family-oriented, cultural neighborhood,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the business will be stagnant. Anna said their goal is to satisfy all tastes, and not just focus on one. Looking ahead, she also wants to expand the retail and wholesale elements of the bakery. For the café, she hopes to hold more events, which have increased over the years.
“I just want to continue all the hard work my parents have put into this place, and just continue expanding,” she said.
That work may fall upon the next generation. Anna recently had a child, who is now four months old. She said that she hopes her child will have the same interests in running the family business.
“I would like my child, and hopefully in the future more children, to be exposed to this kind of environment,” she said “Over time I would like them to make their own decision and if they’d like to continue the family business, I would be very happy with that.
“Of course, that’s something I have no control over, but just being in this environment, I think they’ll enjoy it as much as I did growing up,” she added.