Despite Greek Economy, Athens Cupcake Business Thrives : The Salt The American owner of Hamptons Cupcakes has some beefs with the bureaucracy, but lots of optimism about the country in which she chose to develop her business. She recently opened her third bakery.
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Despite Greek Economy, Athens Cupcake Business Thrives

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Despite Greek Economy, Athens Cupcake Business Thrives

Despite Greek Economy, Athens Cupcake Business Thrives

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These are tough days to do business in Greece. Lots of companies have shut down. Still, there's still entrepreneurs willing to take on the challenge of building a new business in Greece.

NPR's Jim Zarroli has this story of an American woman who opened a bakery in Athens, specializing in a very American style treat.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The Greek economy may be limping along, but business is pretty brisk at Hamptons Cupcakes in Athens. The tables in the sunny courtyard are filled with customers, sipping Greek coffee and eating American cupcakes - people like Chris Papadimas, a student.

CHRIS PAPADIMAS: It's something fresh here in Greece, it's something tasty. If your coffee is just black, it tastes even better.

ZARROLI: Hamptons cupcakes was started by Nicole Kotovos, a 37-year-old former TV producer from New York. A few years ago she wanted to make a change in her life. A Greek-American herself, she figured Greece might be open to the cupcake fad. She got here just as the economy was tanking.

NICOLE KOTOVOS: The Greeks tell me, they're like oh, if only you had been here in the better times. I mean you came at the worst time, what were you thinking? To this day I hear, thank god you have an American passport; you can just get up and leave. Why aren't you doing it?

ZARROLI: But Kotovos persisted and today she's just opened her third store. The decor is very Martha Stewart, with glass cake dishes stacked on white wooden shelves. The menu is on a chalkboard and there's a window where you can watch the baking.

When she started, Kotovos had to teach her employees how to bake American-style. And she had to tweak the recipes.

KOTOVOS: It was almost a three month process until we actually came out with a cupcake that could withstand the climate here. And we change it a little bit in the summer. We keep it very cool inside, for obvious reasons; but it's working.

ZARROLI: Understanding how to do business in Greece was trickier. For example, Greece has its own unusual system of financing. As a business owner she can write checks to suppliers or contractors and post-date them. The suppliers can't cash them right away, but they can use them as collateral for a bank loan.

KOTOVOS: It's a very different policy here. It works great if you're building up a company.

ZARROLI: So it's a form of credit almost?

KOTOVOS: Almost.

ZARROLI: This kind of financing has become much harder to get recently. Like other Greek businesses, Hamptons Cupcakes has to pay cash for everything it buys now.

Kotovos has also had to get used to Greece's strict employment laws. Her workers have guaranteed wages and benefits, including four weeks of vacation, and every Christmas and Easter they get an extra month's salary as a kind of bonus.

KOTOVOS: I said, next life, I am coming to Greece as an employee and America as an employer.

ZARROLI: That's the Greek way and Kotovos doesn't really complain too much about the regulations. What does frustrate her is the way the rules change. One day the government demands a certain kind of permit, the next day it wants something else. It's confusing and she says a lot of Greek businesses develop a kind of casual attitude toward the rules.

KOTOVOS: For better or for worse, they sort of figure ways to do things legally, but with the least possible effort - is the best way I can say it, the most diplomatic way I can say it. For example, there are many stores that operate without actually having full permits, which, eventually, have to get, but they just - they haven't been able to yet.

ZARROLI: For all the troubles however, Kotovos remains a big booster of Greece.

There's a lot of native business talent in the country, she says, and she's convinced the economy can recover.

KOTOVOS: They definitely haven't reached it and they're probably not even close yet, but I constantly have this positive thought that it will, it'll happen. And that's what I love about it.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, she's trying to show that new businesses can survive and grow in Greece, even in the midst of a long and very painful downturn.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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