By Alix Norman
Cupcakes and cookies and brownies. And flavours to make any mouth water: chocolate orange, salted caramel and mint, cappuccino, chilli chocolate and vanilla buttercream. And once, maple syrup buttercream with crunchy bacon bits! “Whatever a customer requests, we can make,” laughs Eleni. “We’re always in the process of testing new flavours and trying new things!” She makes it all sound so easy, but in reality, building Auntie Eli’s American Style Cakes into a booming bakery business was a long, hard slog (with a little help from businessman Stelios Haji-Ioannou).
“My family moved back to Cyprus in 1995,” she says. “We’d always been in the restaurant business, and I’d been waiting tables in New York since I was eight, running the coat check at ten. We weren’t a wealthy family, we moved around a lot and my father passed away when I was young. So I learnt at an early age the importance of family, and the need to work rather than ride my bike in the street with the other kids. Not,” she adds with a laugh, “that we could have afforded a bike!”
At a time when many are still trying to maintain the semblance of wealth in a collapsing economy, Eleni’s transparency is a breath of fresh air. “I’m not going to lie about my past,” she says with a matter of fact air. “It’s just the way it is. When we started Auntie Eli’s, we had no back up, no money and I was out of a job. We started from zero.”
The ‘we’ she refers to is herself and husband Panayiotis Onisiforou, who has stood by her through thick and thin, learning to bake and to run the shop when Eli decided to set up the business. “I started Auntie Eli’s on a whim,” she says. “One morning I saw an empty shop for rent. By the afternoon, I had the keys, and we’d got an appointment with the bank for a loan. Which was turned down”.
Anyone else might have given up at this point. But not Eleni. “Whatever I put my mind to, I do,” she says, the spirit of her early upbringing in Queens ringing to the fore. “We stayed up all night putting together a business plan, and were waiting for the bank manager as he opened the door the following morning. He laughed when he saw me. “‘You’re never going to give up, are you?’ he asked, and I told him that although I couldn’t tell him exactly what would happen, I would work to the end. He gave us the money.”
What followed was a rush of tiling and plaster boarding, as Eleni and Panayiotis watched ‘How To’ DIY videos by night, and refitted the shop themselves by day. Friends piled in to lend a hand, and in a few short weeks, Auntie Eli’s was up and running. “The loan has disappeared almost immediately, what with kitchen equipment and rent,” says Eleni, “so we were actually starting from minus zero this time! But I completely believed it would work; I was 100 per cent positive.” And she was right: friends spread the word about this delicious new bakery, passers by dropped in to find their taste buds titillated with cinnamon buns and brownies and Eleni often stood in the street enticing customers into the shop with one of her 30-odd cupcake varieties.
“The work was good,” she says, always positive. “But once you’re paying for electricity, social insurance and rent you find you’re taking nothing home at the end of the month. At one point, we just found we couldn’t cover our overheads, so we moved in with my mother and put our house up for rent. We even started talking about moving back to New York.”
Undaunted, Eleni came up with a plan: “I’d been good friends with Piril Senturk Halim, a colleague of mine from Kyrenia, for some time,” she relates, “and though we have separate shops we work very closely together, sharing customers, exchanging recipes and learning from each other. I’d heard about the Stelios Haji-Ioannou award, offering one million euros over five years to various bicommunal ventures as part of his ‘promise for peace in Cyprus’. And Piril and I decided to go for it, putting together a bicommunal bakery book and running for the award in its fourth year.”
They lost. “But when I put my mind to something, I do it,” says Eleni again. “And I just saw losing as a motive to try harder. If you don’t try, you can’t win, right?” The two perfected their book of baking recipes and decorating tutorials, and entered Auntie Eli’s Cake Story again the following – and final – year.
“And in 2012 we won!” Eleni exclaims in delight. “Stelios himself presented us with a humongous cheque, and Piril and I both burst into tears! It was the most amazing feeling,” she says, explaining that it gave her the proof she needed that she was doing something right, the justification that positivity and family can pull through no matter the circumstances. “Part of the money has gone towards producing the book, which will be released in the near future,” she says, “and the rest allowed us to finally be debt free and helped us move to better premises.
“The award made it so much easier for us,” she says, “though we would have kept going even if we hadn’t won!”
These days, there’s so much custom with all the orders for personalised 3D cakes, special flavours of cupcakes, brownies, éclairs and the like, that Auntie Eli’s is moving swiftly into a bright future. “We’re looking at partnerships now, and talking about expanding our team,” she says with an eye, perhaps, on opening another outlet. “It’s been an incredible journey. But it just proves that if you trust your family, work hard and never give up, anything is possible. Even crunchy bacon bits in a cupcake!”
Auntie Eli’s American Style Cakes
FiliouTsigaridi street, close to Finikoudes in Larnaca and across the street from the Social insurance Offices. Open Tuesday to Friday 9.30-6pm, and on Saturday for pre-orders only. Specific orders can be placed in advance. Tel: 24 665595 or 99 309420, [email protected] or visit Facebook page Auntie Elis American Style Cakes