THROUGH HER EYES: ANGELA RAKIS

On the day of the interview, I met Angela Rakis at her home. A natural hostess, she served a tray of cured meat, fruit, cheese and crackers. She asked if I preferred to sit in the living room or go to the kitchen. For me the answer is always the kitchen. So for the next couple of hours, we talked, ate, laughed and shared life's hardships while standing at her kitchen island.       

Over the few hours that I interviewed Angela, she would talk about how her life revolved around food (admittedly not consciously, more culturally), even using a scene from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a comparison.  “It really is like that . . . weddings are four course extravaganzas. Food is just engrained in our lives. Growing up, if anyone came to the house, mom would have a tray similar to what I just gave you. If someone came over we had something to eat. If someone was upset we had something to eat.  At funerals and memorials, wheat berry memorial food or koliva, a dish made of boiled wheat berries, almonds, walnuts, honey, raisins and powdered sugar was a dish always served in memory of loved ones passed. Food is simply a part of us and it often dictates what we do."       

Angela's story begins with the arrival of her grandparents to Washington, DC. After arriving they would open a store, and that store would become an interesting piece to Angela's story.  

Chances are if you are a Washingtonian, you may very well remember either your parents or grandparents shopping at the Florida Avenue Market to purchase fresh produce and meats. Opened on February 15, 1931, Union Terminal Market (as it was originally called) was located on Florida Avenue, NE, practically kissing Gallaudet University. Now known as Union Market, it is a chic market where people go to shop, eat, and sometimes just to be seen.    

Angela is perhaps tied to this landmark market more than she may think. Her grandparents used to buy produce for their store at the Florida Avenue Market and her mom still remembers coming to the market as a kid. After listening to Angela's story, I began to wonder if her grandparents had any idea that they would one day open their own storefront? Or that their store may very well be the unseen spark in Angela that would instill in her a love of food that would in many ways shape her path over the course of her life.   

Her grandparents' store became a hub for the local Greek community and although Angela was unaware at the time, those hours spent in the store, cleaning, bagging grains and doing any little task asked of her, left an impression upon her.  So much so that every turn she took in life, lead her to food.        

"You constantly tell yourself it's not the right time, but . . . if you succeed, great; if you fail, it will suck but you did it. You gave it your best." --Angela Rakis    

--Angela, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?      

Some of us say we learned to cook in the kitchen with our mom or grandma, but for me it comes in several different pieces. Being part of an immigrant family, food is how we communicate on a lot of levels. It's just always been there. 

My grandmother immigrated from Greece to the United States in 1936, eventually landing in Detroit where she met my grandfather who was also Greek but he was born in the states. They got married in Detroit and moved to Washington, DC around 1949 or 1950. They weren't in DC long before they had their first food stand at Center Market, which was located on 5th and K Street, NW. By 1955, they opened their own store, The Acropolis Food Market on Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street, NW before moving to the final location on Georgia Avenue and Underwood Street, NW. My grandparents' store was one of the first Greek/Mediterranean stores in Washington, DC. Back then, there weren't many stores to buy foods similar to those back home, so my grandparents opened the store to bring those familiar food items such as feta cheese and olive oil to the Greek community. It was a place where after church on Sundays, locals would get their groceries for the week, pick up the Greek newspaper, have a coffee and sometimes gossip about the latest happenings. My grandmother was unable to attend church because she had to open the store on Sundays, so my brothers and I would sneak out of church early to see her before the crowds arrived. It was a family place. My mom worked there and she even met my dad there. I 'worked' or maybe it's more accurate to say the store was our babysitter and us kids helped out with little odds and ends. By the 1980s, after my grandmother passed, we closed the store, but through the years, a piece of it has stayed with me. 

After graduating from college, I moved to New York figuring that would be a great starting point for a career in advertising. But the food thing kept coming up. I always enjoyed hosting friends and baking. Whether it was putting together care packages for college friends that couldn’t go home for the holidays or baking gifts for family. I simply loved it. But as a career, it just never crossed my mind.   

I landed a job at an advertising agency and worked there for several years. Unfortunately, when my account went to another agency, I was laid off. I asked myself, now what? I took the severance package which wasn’t much but it was what I needed. I had some Amex points and a little money and going against all rationale, I decided to go to Italy for two weeks. I needed a break and time to clear my head. I never traveled alone, never did anything so spontaneous. But I figured it out and I did it.             

While traveling through Florence and Venice, I took a cooking class where I was exposed to the art of pasta making. It was just a fun, touristy class. But yet again, I began to feel that need for food to be in my life. Now when I came back home, that’s when reality started to hit. I had to find a job. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and that’s when a good friend of mine said, “You should become a baker . . . you’re always baking pies, cakes and cookies.” I didn’t even think that was a real job. Remember, this was before Food Network was huge and probably prior to the celebrity chef phenomenon. I couldn’t imagine getting paid to bake! That fall I started my culinary education at the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center where I had classes from 8am to 3pm and worked from 4pm to 10pm, mainly at local bakeries.     

I worked and went to school around the clock. Between the internships, school and doing a little baking business on the side with some classmates, it was tough. But so was paying that New York rent! I soon realized, as much as I was enamored with food, culinary did not pay so well.     

I made the decision to go back to corporate, but still well within the realm of food. I was frustrated. I had a passion for pastry, but it was difficult to make ends meet. I lived in an apartment with two people, one of which was getting married. So how would I pay an even larger chunk of the rent? If I could, I would have opened an American style bakery. A neighborhoody type bakery. But with apartment rent and new student loans? Well, I guess, if I were being honest, I think I was just too scared.  Every day I would hear about shops and restaurants closing and at the time, I didn't know the steps to take to make it happen. Maybe I could have done it but I didn’t have the confidence . . . I just needed more time to grow. I went back to the career services office at my culinary school and told them I wanted to either work for Martha Stewart or Whole Foods Market. And since someone has to practically die to get a job at Martha Stewart, I landed a job with Whole Foods Market. 

I became the marketing coordinator for the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region. Now here's the thing, in marketing a marketing coordinator position is entry level. Well at Whole Foods it’s a senior position. I certainly did not realize this! I figured I could do this entry level position in my sleep and bake on the side to build my business. But it was more intense than I could have imagined. Working in a new market, pulling together the marketing plan. It was fast paced almost all the time. The bonus was that I had a great boss. She was growing into her own, she trusted me and she brought us, her team, along for the ride.      

As my years with Whole Foods grew, so did my confidence. Retail is always changing and you learn everything taught in business school without going to school! I was lucky because anytime we were up against a challenge, my boss would let us figure it out. That was instrumental in building my confidence. I traveled to Greece to learn about the process for harvesting olives and Italy to learn the process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It was constant learning, my world revolved around food and I was still able to accomplish goals financially.  

I transferred to Washington, DC with Whole Foods because I wanted to be closer to family. But it was after this transfer that I began to feel as though it was time for me to leave. Initially it was fine. Opportunities flowed my way and leadership seemed to trust my judgement enough to allow me to see projects through. But things with my new manager just didn’t work out the way I would have liked. The longer I stayed, I was given less freedom and felt more confined and unable to grow. In this capacity, I had a male boss and, well, there are just some men that do not like confident women. I wasn’t always a confident person. I had to work at it, and prior to this point in my career, over the past eight years or so I slowly built my confidence. I built solid teams and I was an effective leader. I won the All-Star award seven times and best program in the company. I was proud of the teams I put together and I always felt Whole Foods valued their leaders. Like I said, I worked hard to build my confidence but towards the end, my confidence was getting holes shot into it and I quite literally felt it dwindling away. I don't think I realized it then, but once you start having a bad feeling about a job, you've probably already been there five months too long.   

Through total serendipity, I met a woman who would be my next boss at a Sips and Suppers dinner for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen. I struck up a conversation with her and we of course began talking about food. I was being quite New Yorky and said, "There's no good food in DC, it's just terrible. I can't find a good place to eat." She then began to tell me one of her missions was to bring food soul back to DC. I told her, "You know, I hear this Union Market is opening in a few weeks, I hope that does something." Then she perked right up and said, "Yeah, I hope so too, that's my company . . . we're the developers!" And I said, "Oh, well who are you?" And she of course returned the question. I then realized I was talking to Jodie McLean, CEO of EDENS, a real estate developer who opened and operates Union Market. It also became apparent that she was the landlord for some of my Whole Foods locations.  

I worked with Jodie for a few years, and that gave me the opportunity to work with small retailers and restaurants. But I began to see myself getting further and further from food as my position began to focus more on the nitty gritty of real estate. I missed the food, and I would find myself trying to nudge into any project that was remotely related to food. I stayed for three or four years and decided I needed to get back to food.  

The months leading up to my departure, I kept receiving emails from friends and family about a local pizza shop closing in my old neighborhood. I initially thought, I don’t know why they are sending me this . . . I have a job. It was a restaurant. I never wanted a restaurant. But I adored the place. It was nostalgic, part of my childhood and it was a local joint where kids worked during their summers off. Did I want to run a restaurant? Could I run a restaurant? Of course, I asked people close to me what they thought. I think I was secretly hoping they would say no, that is crazy and you shouldn’t do it. I never heard those words. I didn’t have the restaurant managing piece, but hey, I opened upwards of 40 Whole Foods and each one was different with different concepts, different goals and of course a different set of challenges.  

You know the confidence thing is scary. One minute I feel like I can do it and the next I don’t. It’s tough. Going through the process of buying the pizza shop, most of the conversations with the lenders, and advisors revolve around, “When the business fails, this is what we will do!” It’s not expected for me to succeed. The bank, the Small Business Administration, do any of you want to know what will happen when I succeed? I mean, how about asking me about my business plan? I once listened to an NPR show and the discussion was about how different the dialogue is for male and female entrepreneurs. I mean I’m spending all my capital before I even get the loan. I could easily psych myself out because there is so much negative talk. I could just tell myself that it wasn’t meant to be. I mean, I'm fighting just to get a closing date! 

All this makes me think of my mom and how she didn’t settle. Even when it came to my grandfather telling her what she could and could not do as a young woman. My mom came from a traditional family and my grandfather told her she could either be a hairdresser or a secretary. She wanted to go to art school in Baltimore, but he told her he would not allow it. She ended up going to cosmetology school where she became a hairdresser. After taking time off when she had my brothers, she needed to renew her license before going back to work but she decided she no longer wanted to be a hairdresser. Needless to say, she never renewed that license. She became a stay at home mom until I was about seven or eight years old. Then one day, her best friend came over with a typewriter and said, “We’re getting jobs today!” My mom looked at her and said, “Jobs, what do we know how to do?” Her friend responded by saying, “We know how to do lots of things. We are moms!”  

Mom was hired at a local bank and she also took classes at Montgomery College. Her boss told her if she earned solid grades, they would pay for her classes. I mean, talk about not settling! She eventually worked her way up and by the end of her career she became a vice president. Even though it took her close to 20 years, I watched my mom walk across the stage to receive her diploma from Trinity College which just so happened to be the same year I received mine. She did it. She didn’t settle. Her dad didn’t let her go to school, but in the end, she accomplished her goals. She obtained her degree and she became an artist. She does shows, sells her art and has even won awards. Mom just turned 74.  

When you work for someone else, you constantly tell yourself it’s not the right time but you think of all the things you could be doing were you not holding yourself back. I don’t want another boss. If I succeed, great. If I fail, it’s gonna suck but I did it. I gave it my best. 

I was talking to an entrepreneur friend of mine, telling her about obtaining financing and just getting over those final hurdles to purchase the pizza shop. She told me, "This is the exact spot where most people give up, and if you do give up, in five years-time you will see someone else realizing their dreams and you will wonder what if."  

 I don't want to wonder what if.  

--When you look in the mirror, what do you think of the woman staring back at you?     

I think she’s confident, loyal and she’s making things happen. Sometimes she forgets that she’s done so much already. She’s gotta remind herself that she can do things. It’s all possible.