Marios Kleovoulou narrated the story behind the famous Mario's Snacks in Limassol!

* NOTE: All the tributes of All About Limassol (as the Official Guide of Limassol) aim to ONLY highlight the special advantages of this wonderful city, so that everyone can be aware of the unique Experiences it offers. Under no circumstances do they have any promotional or nominal value, nor do they serve the interests of Companies, Municipalities, Organizations or Individuals.

For the past 37 years, at the break of dawn, Marios Kleovoulou has been switching on the lights in his workshop in the center of Limassol, and getting to work. This does not make him much different than the thousands of his other fellow citizens going to work at this hour each day. What does make him stand out, however, is the result of his work, for which everyone knows his name (and his mustache!), thanks to the famous ‘koupes’ and cheese pies he has consistently been making all these years.

Of course, many may not be aware of Mario’s story, which is the reason he was chosen for this tribute in All About Limassol (the Official Source for Promoting Limassol). As a teenager, Marios left the Mandria village in the mountainous area of Limassol to try and make a living. What resulted was the creation of one of the city’s most beloved shops. This is certainly an inspiring story worth emulating, and serves to reiterate the pride that Limassolians feel for businesses such as Mario’s, where quality is placed above all else. Marios Snacks has become a daily stopover for thousands of locals and visitors, and is distinguished for its energy and the high quality of its products. However, it is the story and the people behind it that exemplify what the people of this city are capable of achieving, thus raising the bar of success for us all.

At a time when Famagusta was the tourist hub of Cyprus, Marios found himself within that cosmopolitan environment, making his first steps in the field of cooking and hospitality. At the time, there was not the slightest hint of the tourism expansion set to come to Limassol, and everything that Marios witnessed for the first time there remained emblazoned in his memory to this day. At the time, not even he himself could imagine being able to set up a business which would earn the admiration, appreciation and fondness of so many thousands of people in Limassol.

His career in Famagusta ended abruptly with a violent awakening on the morning of the Turkish invasion, as he witnessed the 11 floors of the imposing Salaminia Tower where he worked crumble from bombs dropped by Turkish planes.

From one day to the next, the invasion had created a seismic shift in peoples’ lives. For 16-year-old Marios, this short stay in Famagusta, though inevitably one of the most precious and enjoyable, was also the most traumatic experience of his life.

Everything he saw and learned as a young cook’s assistant at the time, appears to have shaped his way of working, and has become the guide to his success today. He remembers with admiration how hotels would arrange excursions to the countryside, chartering buses and cooking barbecues for all their visitors.

“Hospitality was on another level,” he says, “and visitors were year-round, because tourists would visit again and again, once, twice, 3 times, even 4 times in the same year.”  

The examples and lessons he learned from working in Famagusta during its heyday proved to be a valuable asset, helping to shape the future that awaited him upon his return to Limassol. A methodical and persistent man, with an eye for detail and quality, Marios showed early on that he had all the prerequisites needed to create his own small business. His standards were even higher, however, thanks to those set by the hotels in which he worked from a young age.

And so, after working at the Amathus and Forest Park Hotels in Limassol, he decided to open his own shop, in order to give himself some time to start his own family. Indeed, his memories of his first few years of marriage with his wife Sophia remind him of an old Greek comedy, where incompatible working hours meant that the couple only met at the front door, as one was on his way home, just as the other was leaving. Thus, the little 2 x 2 shop seemed to be the only hope for them to become a regular family.

While many things have changed in the way of work today, there is one ritual that remains untouched: that of the 1 to 2 hour midday siesta, a luxury of which Marios does not deprive himself, as it is his only way of making it through a day that begins at 3am and ends late in the afternoon. 

“At the Amathus I worked as a cook. When I decided to leave, I had been recommended to the District Administration office – where my wife worked – for a job as a superintendent. It was easy to get such jobs at the time. In fact, I went to the interview and I was told to start work the very next day – it was that easy – but I didn’t feel as though this was the right fit for me,” he explains. “Instead, I preferred to start something of my own, because I felt courageous enough to take a risk and I believed it would work.” 

“At the time, I had 200 pounds set aside. I considered opening a tavern, but I wanted something that wouldn’t keep me busy at nights and on holidays. So, I started the snack bar, in a very small space on Gladstonos Street.”

The family’s 3 children were encouraged early on to undertake studies which could then be utilized in the development of the family business. As such, the 2 boys, Stelios (the oldest) and Harris (the youngest) received degrees in hotel and hospitality studies, while Mario’s daughter, Despina, studied accounting. In this way, each of the 3 children became ideal partners in a business that had all the right prospects to flourish and grow.

Before its major renovation in 2009, Mario’s workshop was in plain view, offering customers a peep at how his products were made. When the workshop was transferred to the first floor, Marios insisted on placing a monitor right at the shop entrance (with the words ‘Live Now’), which broadcast a live feed of what was happening in the workshop. 

This collaboration between father and children, which has often been a cause for friction and tension in other businesses, appears to have been beneficial both for Marios Kleovoulou’s family, as well as his business. After all, it had been a family venture right from the start, as the shop was set up with the generous support of wife and mother Sophia, whom the family sadly lost too soon. 

In the difficult years which followed Sophia’s health problems, which included trips to Germany for chemotherapy and her subsequent, sad passing, father and children found themselves supporting each other, trying to fill an irreplaceable void at home and at work. 

“Stelios began working at a difficult time, both for the family as well as for the business,” Harris explains, “because when he returned in 2005, that was the toughest period of our mother’s illness and our father was often away with her in Germany. Not long after that came our major refurbishment, when the shop was essentially rebuilt from scratch.” Upon returning from their studies, each of the children knew that they would not be handed managerial positions within the business.

“All of us children made an agreement with our father to study, work independently away from the family business, and slowly enter the business at a later stage.” Today, Stelios (in front on the left), Harris (in front in the center) and Despina (right) each manage a major part of the business, with Stelios in charge of production and hot kitchen, Harris in charge of cold kitchen and marketing, and Despina managing the company’s accounts. 

The 2 generations that work together in the family business today seem to have found the right equilibrium in their collaboration. New ideas introduced by Mario’s children are complemented by the knowledge and 30+ years of experience of their father. As such, the business expands in a way that is modern and creative, without ever straying away from its original philosophy of a snack bar; a space that offers convenient meals for people living a fast-paced city life.

The familial relationship between father and children is kept separate during working hours, returning only during break time, with a laugh and a joke, or even a few stolen minutes of football in the little yard behind the shop, where Marios hopes he will learn how to day play with his grandchildren.

Do you regret anything after all these years?
Only the outrageous working hours I kept during the first 10 years. I would spend 15 - 16 hours at work, from 3 am until 9 pm. The shop on Gladstonos Street was small, and it was impossible for us to hire employees. There was no other choice, however, because customers were multiplying day by day. Crowds would line up outside the shop, down the street, in order to get a ‘koupa’ or a cheese pie. 

“Women always have more to offer than men. Men have one thing to do that is their responsibility, but women oversee many fronts: from the kids and their own work, to fixing the button on a man’s shirt and handling the wedding invitations,” admits Marios. 

“If I did not have a wife who tolerated my working hours, and supported all of us, I would not have made it. Sophia had the ability to find solutions in everything and even the accountants admired her for the way she managed the shop’s accounts,” he adds.

Are you strict with the shop staff?
The truth is I do want the job to be done right. Mostly, however, I refuse to tolerate lying and deception. I am good and fair with everyone, unless I see that someone has tried to deceive me. Then I get angry, very angry indeed.

A strong team, both inside and outside the workshop, is an important factor for the continuous, successful development of the family business. 

Does this create issues with your staff?
When someone understands what kind of person I am, we get along just fine. Even when if I criticize someone, it’s for their own good. It is very important to be honest and to listen to those who wish to help you.

When you opened your shop on Gladstonos Street, did you ever expect to end up with such a large business?
No, I never expected it. I did not expect my little 2x2 shop to have customers lining up down the block. Of course, when we saw that the quality of our products had the effect of exponential growth on our clientele, we began to realize that we needed to find a new space. And so, in 1990, we opened this shop here, which was original and unique for its time.

I always wanted to be ahead in whatever I did, not out of egotism, but so that I can offer my customers only the very best.

This is what I had learned from the time I worked in Famagusta, watching the type of hospitality offered by the hotels there. This seemed to have brought results. In fact, when we opened the shop in Agias Zonis, it was chaos with the numbers of people who would come every day.

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Though there are many hands in the workshop today, Marios himself has not retired. Instead, he is the first one there every morning, participating in the manufacturing process of all the products from start to finish, kneading and opening out fylo pastry, just as he did 37 years ago.  

Wasn’t the business shaken by the financial crisis?
It was a difficult time for us all. We needed to adapt as well, and the children even made the decision to dock their own wages, though I laughed at this. After all, we certainly did not face as big a problem as some of other companies.

If a company that sells daily consumables of €2 - €3 each is in trouble, then that means the country’s financial situation is in truly dire straits. 

Aside from long working hours, what is the secret to succeeding in a business such as yours?
The most important thing is to never allow your quality to drop. On the other hand, you should not use this quality as an excuse to raise prices. We haven’t raised prices in our shop in 5 years, yet every year we look for various ways to continuously improve our quality.

“I would prefer to have less profit, and secure them all year long from satisfied customers, than to make a larger profit, albeit temporarily,” explains Marios. 

We undertook a major renovation in 2009, which cost us a lot of money. We did not expect to make this investment back within 1 year. This is something that will take time. What we want is for our space to be enjoyed by everyone, even the person who will come in to purchase just 1 bottle of water, but who will be able to sit comfortably and enjoy it. Even if you go to the Amathus Hotel one evening and just drink 1 €5 coffee, you will still enjoy the view, the live music. This is a beautiful thing for the city. It’s things like this that we have adopted from abroad, and they do us a great deal of good.

Some say that a €5 coffee is expensive.
There is cheaper coffee in Limassol, of course. But if you have a coffee at a 5-star hotel, you will also enjoy the view, the atmosphere, the service, the quality of the products.

Why do so many people complain, then?
It’s in our nature as Cypriots, even as a Mediterranean culture. I remember it as a phenomenon even in Famagusta, it is not just local to Limassol. Of course, some simply grumble, while others deal with their problems and look for solutions. For example, when their hotel was demolished from the bombings, I was impressed at how the owners brought crews the very next day to begin gathering debris in order for the road to open.

The rubble of the Salaminia Tower in Famagusta, after the bombing from Turkish planes. Marios was then 16 years old and he was at the hotel at the time. When the death of another 16-year-old was announced, his mother came straight from Limassol in anguish, believing that her son was among the victims.

What must we fix in Limassol?
One of the most important problems we face is the cleanliness of the sea. This is a problem that has always existed. In the past, pollution was caused by sewage from the factories, and now it comes from the ships. It has been so many years but nobody has managed to do anything about it, and the sea is Limassol’s greatest asset. 

There are experts on these issues, and we must finally find a way to control pollution in the sea. If the private sector was in charge of this, it would have been solved by now without all these delays due to bureaucracy.  

Is there something we need to change with regard to our way of thinking?
In a lot of ways, we don’t pay attention to our behavior. We often see things in the shop that upset us, such as customers touching items which they do not eventually buy, showing us that they don’t respect our work, or the rest of the customers in the shop.

We have many assets, both as Limassolians and as Cypriots – and the sea certainly helps with this, as it makes people more open and cheerful.

The best advice I recently heard from a customer is to head straight to the beach after work. 

Exercise and the sea always calm you down. So, that’s what we do, too, and we always have a swimsuit with us when we come to work, so that the day can end with a swim in the sea, at least in the summer months. 

“If we focus more on the positives (instead of the negatives, which hold us back and don’t help us improve ourselves or our city) then our daily lives would certainly be better.”

CHARIS: For example, once a week, we have established a tradition with my father to walk down to Heroes’ Square and have a coffee at Madame. If our relationship only took place in the context of work, this would wear us down at some point. You must be willing to experience the beautiful moments of this city, otherwise you will only see the problems that exist.

Are you nostalgic for the Limassol of the past?
Objectively speaking, we cannot stop time. We must move forward and adjust to the current state of things.

The love and care for good food, made with quality and fresh ingredients, has resulted in the creation of a family farm in Mandria, the birthplace of Marios. Although it initially only covered the family’s own needs, it is now run as a side-by-side business that has been steadily developing, now stocking the snack bar’s kitchen with traditional village products. .

With years of toil and sweat, sleep deprivation and time away from his home and his children, Marios Kleovoulou has managed to set up a business which allows him a significant income. For him, however, it’s not how much money he puts in his pocket, but rather how he can use it to help those who need it, to give gifts which bring joy to himself and to his friends and family and – mainly – to improve the product he offers his customers. The most interesting aspect of his story, however, is how this young boy from rural Limassol, who came from a farming family with no financial support to offer him, managed to pave a successful course for himself, and with great insight and courage, taking advantage of all the opportunities he found along the way.

His success, of course, is not so much measured by the size of his business, but also the dedication and enthusiasm both himself and his children bring to their work. This is why, from the moment his children joined him, the development of the shop was rapid, as it expanded with new products, from sandwiches and yogurts, to organic ice creams and coffee of excellent quality. This family business, which has gained the appreciation and recognition of both locals and foreigners in the city, is ultimately a prime example of how new ideas and examples from abroad, when creatively combined with our own traditions, help create limitless prospects for the future. And while Mario’s Snacks is certainly worthy of admiration for its delicious ‘koupes,’ it is even worthier for what it has achieved as a business.