Family store finds success during rough economy


Smaller grocery stores have been gobbled up by big chains, but there's one market that has survived and thrived.

It's 6 a.m. on Haight Street, and Constantin Vardakastanis, or Gus as he's known around here, is already four hours into his day. He unloads produce he bought in the morning, getting his Haight Street market ready for opening at 7.

From there he goes to his Sunset store, on Noriega at 46th.

Vardakastanis has been on this grueling schedule four mornings a week, for 30 now years at the Haight store and 27 at Noriega.

"People tell me, you've got 40 employees, why do you work?" Vardakastanis said. "I say well if you're not down on your knees every day you're not gonna make it." While other San Francisco neighborhood markets have folded -- Tower Market is now Mollie Stones, Calla Bell on Geary Closed down, and the Calla at the foot of Haight Street is now a Whole Foods -- Vardakastanis' Noriega Produce and Haight Street Market have survived and thrived with Haight expanding this year into a full-service market to meet the challenge presented by the new whole foods.

In this recession, Vardakastanis is hiring.

Vardakastanis came here from Greece in 1976, when he was 16. A large contingent of 5 Vardakastanis families came together seeking a better life.

All but Gus eventually threw in the towel and went back home.

"They bet money I would never make it," Vardakastanis said.

The shop is a family affair: Gus' son Dimitri Vardakastanis runs Noriega; at Haight, it's wife Georgia Vardakastanis and younger son Bobby Vardakastanis running the shop.

"Every parent wants their kid to do something bigger and badder and move on a little bit," said Dimitri Vardakastanis. "My brother and I both liked the business so we were like, we'll grow the business."

Both boys grew up in the stores. Part of their success is making their customers feel as at home here as they do.

Mark Heyert has been a Haight customer for 20 years.

"I have two kids," said Heyert. "When they see my teenager around, they're looking after her."

Gus Vardakastanis' mother and sister still live in Greece and watch over the olive trees there, but as lovely as it looks, Dimitri Vardakastanis said there's no question the family has a better life here.

"I think our family is a big show off," Vardakastanis said. "If you work hard, you can make something because they really did come with nothing."

And the business is ripe for growth.

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