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Neophytos from Limassol explains how he became the famous 'Athenian' of London!

14/12/2019
* NOTE: All the tributes of All About Limassol (as the Official Guide of Limassol) aim to ONLY highlight the special aspects of this wonderful city, so that everyone can be aware of the exceptional options they offer. Under no circumstances do they have any promotional or nominal value, and they do not serve the interests of Companies, Municipalities, Organizations or Individuals.

Neophytos Christodoulou from Limassol was one of those people for whom the future seemed predictable: excellent school performance, a Cambridge education, and a job in one of the major British banks. The fact that at age 35 he no longer works in an office located in a glass tower, but rather, in a kebab shop, could be considered by some to be a failure. The difference, however, is that Neophytos is actually the co-founder of London’s biggest Greek street food brand.

If you find yourself in the British capital, it’s easy to understand the sweeping success enjoyed by this brand. You are sure to run into one of the 6 shops of ‘The Athenian’ chain in London (or in Bristol, where the seventh is located), all of which have made a trend of Greek kebab and Cypriot lokoumades in England. What you may never have imagined, however, is that the person behind this operation is a young Limassolian and Cambridge graduate.

Neophytos left Limassol in 2004, dreaming of an academic career. After having experienced a taste of life as one of the ‘Golden Boys,’ he found a way to strike the perfect balance between success and happiness, turning his back on everything and embarking on a completely unorthodox path of his own. Replacing his suit and tie with a kitchen apron, his business acumen found space not merely to express itself, but also to prevail within the highly competitive environment of one of the world’s largest metropolises. This is validated by the increasing number of shops, which support the enterprise with a staff of 100+. 

The journey of such people is certainly worth celebrating by the entire city, and it is this journey that has led to this tribute by All About Limassol (Official), the Official Guide of Limassol.

Dreaming from Limassol to Cambridge

Neophytos was a good student. He stood out as a result of his mathematical skills, and had begun already begun taking his GCSEs in high school. Somewhere along the way, his goal became to secure a spot at the University of Cambridge. For most parents of millennials, seeing their child excel at their studies is a dream come true, and this was the case with Neophytos’s parents as well. Their son’s entry into the University of Cambridge brought tears to their eyes, and the eyes of the entire family.

“I went to my induction interview completely unprepared. Everyone who is accepted from the private schools of England starts training early on for how to handle such a moment. In my case, everything seemed to have gone completely wrong; even my alarm clock failed to go off and I only managed to wake up just 20 minutes before my interview. I was so stressed at the time, mainly out of fear of disappointing my parents,” Neophytos recalls.  

The environment at the University of Cambridge was particularly competitive. In a department led by Stephen Hawking himself, demands were extremely high.

“I cried many times. Not only was our knowledge and intelligence being tested, but so was our mental stamina. At the same time, however, I met people who had a passion for both their subject, but also for life. For example, many of my classmates chose to take a gap year during which they traveled or volunteered, collecting experiences in order to begin their studies as more fulfilled and well-rounded individuals.”

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Scenes from life at Cambridge.

If you could, would you go back and change your decision to study at the University of Cambridge?
I didn’t get to live the student life my friends did in Greece, and I always wondered what it would be like if I had gone to study in Athens. At Cambridge, I spent many Saturdays studying. However, when I went to lectures by distinguished academics and would see the impressive backdrop of this historic campus, with the gardens and the canals and the impressive buildings, I would think how lucky I was to experience this.

Many times, of course, I felt stupid and began to fear the mathematics I once loved.

Did you ever feel you were on brink of giving up?
There were times, yes. For example, I was so disappointed after a test, when one of my 2-page answers was given a 0. I didn’t give up, but this psychological pressure was the reason I didn’t pursue a PhD. If I had studied at any other University, it’s likely I would have followed an academic career.

Sometimes I think that I’m more stubborn than clever, and that’s why I always follow through every goal I set.  

Testing the ‘Golden Boy’ dream

As an extension of his Cambridge education, Neophytos embarked on a career that seemed to be straight out of the movie Wall Street. From the microcosm of Limassol, he found himself among the privileged community of Cambridge, and from there, he dove into the intense pace and cold logic of the world of finance, among the glass skyscrapers.  

“I had just completed my studies when the financial crisis struck, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It was as if everything was telling me to leave this place,” laughs Neophytos. 

“I worked at JP Morgan, at a time when extremely tough austerity measures were being enforced on the Greek economy, something that was particularly painful for me. On the floor where I worked, whenever a new downgrade was announced for Greece, it appeared that the whole country was being subjected to ridicule. I always had a special place in my heart for Greece, and this was a conflicting experience for me.”

I had endured the 12+ hour workdays that were often demanded by this job, but around that time I had felt my strength start to wane, and this had much to do with my own personal ethics.

The frantic pace of work, the telephone that never stopped ringing, the trading of bonds in the wake of a collapsing country, all led him to a period of self-doubt. These conflicts served as alarm bells for Neophytos, and he began planning his ‘great escape’ from the glass skyscraper.

“From a young age, I would always follow the logic of 1+1=2. As I grew up, however, I began to realize that there are many gray areas in life, not all of which fall into the realms of logic,” he admits. 

“In Cyprus, hardly anyone understood why I wanted to leave JP Morgan, for indeed the allure is so great, with the very high wages, and other comforts to go with it. There was a work hard – play hard philosophy. But despite everything that this life had to offer, the only thing I truly miss is the level of discussions I had with my peers in that environment. The rest of it just feels stale to me.”

In England, my good friends could see my inner conflict. They knew that this kind of a job did not fit my character in the least.

“Though I was making a lot of money on the day I left, it was not worth the pressure, and the 20-hour workdays we sometimes had to endure. The people who were well-suited to this environment, however, could easily become millionaires before the age of 30. The culture of the Golden Boys was very real. But these people were slaves to the demands of their position, which means they would give up everything to stay in the office all night just to prepare an emergency presentation.”

From the skyscrapers to the settlements of Africa

“My parents would anxiously ask me what I was going to do after leaving the bank. They didn’t actually believe I would make the decision to leave. I had been mentally preparing myself for months, in various ways. I didn’t have anything specific in mind. A friend from University had informed me about volunteer work for some NGOs in Africa. I started to become interested in this, as I wanted to do something useful and beneficial, and the area of development economics was what I was looking for,” explains Neophytos.

The Greek crisis had affected me and I became focused on how I could help in such situations.

“My friend had been active in certain projects in Sierra Leone, and I already had a special, personal interest in Africa, having read up on its history and economy. My journey began in Sierra Leone, continued to Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and ended in Ghana.”

There were moments of drama when I announced my trip to my parents. I had booked a one-way ticket, communication was going to be difficult, and my decision seemed to be a crazy one.

I won’t say it was all simple and easy, but the experience of these 5 months was valuable to me. I found myself in areas that had just come out of civil war, where children had grown up with guns in their hands. I stayed in settlements with poor sanitation, at risk of diseases that could kill instantly.

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“I wanted to cry just seeing the experiences the people there were going through. I also caught malaria myself, and it was one of the few instances throughout this period that I was truly scared.” 

Did you every think about giving up?
I don’t give up easily. I knew that the program would end at some point, and I wanted to give these 5 months my all. I felt that I didn’t have the right to complain, having seen people who lived their entire lives in these conditions.

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Towards the end of the journey I began seeking my next step. I taught mathematics while searching for my next professional opportunity. That was when I was accepted into a program that offered consulting services for the development of small enterprises with a social impact.

Everything started with a stall in the street…

“It was around that time that I started experimenting with lokoumades. They were a dessert I always loved and could not find anywhere in London, so I thought about making them myself and selling them. I figured that the food business was one that would always have an impact on the market, especially when it comes to something that is not easy to find,” explains Neophytos. 

Towards the end of the program, I felt the need to create something of my own. There was something of a food revolution starting in London, with the introduction of gourmet burgers and pizzas, and cuisines from all over the world, with an emphasis of fresh ingredients and authenticity, but Greek fast food in the center of London was scarce.

I had initially planned on starting a Greek cuisine project with a friend, and had even prepared an 11-page business plan. In the end, she got married suddenly, and the plan was left hanging. 

“I had made it my goal, however. I began preparing 40 liters of dough in the evening, loading up all the equipment into an Uber, and heading to outdoor markets, which always had a lot of traffic in London. The Uber driver looked at me curiously, carrying pots and a gas stove and all the rest of the equipment, but he didn’t say anything. And so, I set up my first stall, making lokoumades,” he says. 

At the same time, I had noticed the sign for The Athenian somewhere, and thought, ‘what a shame, someone else has taken the project I was planning.’ What I didn’t know at the time was that I would eventually become an… Athenian.

Ever since adolescence, when his sister had gone to study in Athens, Neophytos had the opportunity to visit the city a few times. His dream of living in the Greek metropolis however, was never fulfilled. Nevertheless, at the end of his banking career, life had a way of opening a new door to Athenian culture.

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From the lokoumades stand, to the stand of The Athenian.

The Greek kebab stand called ‘The Athenian’ was set up by Euthimis, who had studied sound technology but was experimenting with Greek street food. “This type of food was not very well-known at the time, though fast food in London is very popular,” says Neophytos. Euthimis had noticed how popular Greek street food had become. He had worked at certain festivals and pop-up canteens, which attracted hundreds of people. 

“He realized that in order to do this job, he needed a partner. He happened to see some posts on Twitter of lokoumades stalls, and so we got in touch,” Neophytos adds.

Was it easy to set up such a business?
One would think that because we didn’t have a steady store at first, but rather just a stall, things would be simple. But in reality, it was a very stressful period, and we never seemed to have enough time. We would start at 7am to set up the stall at the market, and in the afternoon we needed to pack it up and wash all the utensils and equipment, and from 7pm onwards we carried on working on things that had to do with the financials, the staff, the marketing, etc.

I would say that this was even harder than working at the bank. When we started The Athenian, there were 1-2 other stalls, but they didn’t develop further, and this was probably not a coincidence.

Despite the difficulties, and the many hours on the job, I never thought about giving up. It is very creative work, where you need to constantly think about how to present something new and this nourished me. 

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The lines in front of the stalls.

Did others try to imitate your efforts?
When the stall started becoming popular, many tried to steal the name and the logo, which is why we eventually registered the brand in England. There is already a shop with the same name in the USA, but the legal procedures for registration are more complicated there, so we did not proceed with it. Now, with the new circumstances created by Brexit, we are exploring the possibility of making our next move outside of England, and we may need to register the brand on a European level.

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The menu features a double bill of kebab and lokoumades, but it is constantly being developed and renewed.  

Do you feel proud of what you have accomplished?
In the early years, I didn’t even tell people close to me. I was overcome by the fear of failure that I didn’t even promote it on social media. When friends started to find out, they immediately became excited.

I slowly began to feel great pride in everything that we were offering to people.

Every time I offered a customer an authentic kebab with ‘tirokafteri’ and ‘tzatziki,’ every time I prepared a portion of traditional lokoumades, I felt a great deal of satisfaction. At the bank, no matter how important the work I was doing, I never felt like this. Nothing can compare to seeing the long lines of people waiting patiently for a kebab. Nothing can compare to their enthusiastic praise, or to the fact that people from all across England travel to London to eat at The Athenian.

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The shops of the chain are scattered all across London.

What played a role in your success?
The fact neither myself nor Euthimis were out to make money with this whole venture. It was something we really loved and we put our heart and soul into it. Being directly involved in every stage of the process had allowed us to have an immediate understanding of the way our products were received, and we would proceed according to this response. We were not primarily entrepreneurs, but rather, creators. People had been watching our journey from the start to the present day, seeing our struggles and our efforts over the years,w and I believe that this, along with the flavor, was what won many people over.

At the same time, people appreciated the fact that The Athenian had a clear identity. Beyond the name, we made sure that all the flavors are 100% Greek, with many products coming straight from the Greek market. 

Even Greek hospitality is well represented at our shop. Ever since our first Christmas, we introduced the concept of treating customers with free holiday cookies. People would ask us how much they cost before taking one, because nothing is ever free in London, and they were amazed when they realized it was on us. By treating our customers, we were expressing our joy by opening our own ‘home’ and welcoming people. This joy was passed on to all who visited us. 

Just 5 years after its start, The Athenian is a leading brand, with 6 shops in London, 1 shop in Bristol, a staff of 100+ people and a menu that is constantly being developed to surprise its visitors. 

Does this job only bring joy?
Of course not. On the one hand, being in constant contact with people and offering something you love does bring you joy, but on the other hand, serving customers is not a simple matter. Not everyone can understand the difficulties, the time spent on your feet, the pressure, the heat of the stove, and this results in some extreme reactions.

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A creative spirit and a love for Greek flavors were the basis of Neophytos and Euthimis’s collaboration. 

The hospitality business is a difficult one. Unfortunately, it is not considered a career and as we get older, Euthimis and I think about how we would like to have a company in which anyone would be proud to work, and have opportunities for advancement.

Sights set on Limassol

Could this street food model work in Limassol?
Yes, I believe it’s a trend that could easily be embraced by the whole world. Such movements could have great benefits overall for an area and its local community. As for us, we have settled in an area that doesn’t have the financial advantages of central London, but we chose it because we consider the multiculturalism of this area to be very interesting. We didn’t simply want to set up a kebab shop, but rather a brand that contributes to the local community.

A market like the ones in which The Athenian operates in London is currently being formed in the old Pantopoleio of Limassol. 

What do you miss from Limassol?
I miss the relaxed pace of life, the simpler and more spontaneous everyday activities. The large distances of London force us into a daily race against time in order to get things done. As such, we need to measure and calculate our every movement precisely.

There is a lack of simplicity and familiarity here, or a willingness from neighbors to help out without expecting anything in return. These are things that are part of our daily life in Limassol. 

Are there things in Limassol you don’t miss at all?
Yes, there is a tendency towards waste, towards extreme consumption. For example, I notice that when there is a buffet, people will pile their plates and then only eat half of what they have. This is considered very rude in England.

This tendency towards exaggeration is often associated with an affinity for showing off what one has. We don’t consider the consequences of our actions, and we only seek out what is convenient for us in that particular moment. 

I may have become a bit more sensitive to these issues, because I don’t experience them in London. However, I think it is wrong to tolerate certain circumstances to such a large degree.

A consequence of this tolerance is the relaxed attitude towards obeying rules, and this ruins so many aspects of our daily life, from illegal parking on sidewalks or in the middle of the street, to the vandalism of public spaces. 

What would you like to change about Limassol?
In the future, I would like to see more green in Limassol. There is so much green to be seen in all the major cities in the world, and though Limassol is growing, it doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure that would improve peoples’ quality of life. As a city evolves, it must also offer free public spaces, squares, parks, pedestrian walkways, etc. It is no coincidence that the seafront area is one of the city’s greatest advantages.

What advice would you give to a young person growing up here?
In our country, families support their children well into adulthood. But this support also brings with it feelings of guilt when you don’t live up to your parents expectations. In England, I had classmates who had left home as teenagers. Perhaps there needs to come a time when young people distance themselves from the security and guilt of this environment, and find themselves and their own path.

The privileged future for which Neophytos had prepared ended up, at some point, feeling like a gilded cage. He was not a rich kid, but he grew up in Limassol during a time of prosperity, and he had the option of continuing to work in highly paid environment. When he realized that these privileges came with certain limitations that did not suit him, he had the courage to make a 180 degree turn.

Some would consider it beneath this Cambridge graduate to stand in a stall and fry up lokoumades. But for Neophytos, it was a step towards something truly his. This step allowed him to become a successful businessman, offering something unique to the world, and going to sleep every night with a clear conscience. He thus proved that happiness and success are made up as you go along, in the shape and form that you want them to be. For personal development does not fit into standard molds, and neither does the progress of an entire city, such as Limassol. With such tributes, All About Limassol (Official) strives to show that creativity, courage and determination are the driving force behind every great step.