In the early days of the pandemic, I called my parents to ask what they’d been eating. I worried that with their inability to figure out online grocery ordering and fears surrounding in-person, supermarket, they’d be facing an empty fridge and far too many pots of lentils. “Oh, no,” my mother replied one weekday around lunchtime, “I’ve just had a plate of grape leaves with some lovely tzatziki and taramasalata.” Knowing my father’s cooking skills didn’t extend to Greek cuisine, I was curious. It turned out they’d made a new discovery in Belmont, just minutes from their house in Cambridge.
When my husband and I came to stay a month later, it was confirmed: They’d gone Greek. The shelves of the refrigerator were stacked high with spanakopita and moussaka, olive, cheese, and spinach breadsticks crowded the pantry, and ethereally decadent yogurt was served with every meal. Generic brand olive oil had been replaced with a bottle in script I couldn’t read, and throughout the day, I found myself returning to the kitchen to nab another perfectly briny, meat-filled dolma. The source of this incredible food was Sophia’s Greek Pantry, run by the formidable Sophia Skopetos, who arrived in the area to study in 1975, and took over the store in 2001. In 2016, she opened a new location in Lowell, which her daughter runs.
Knowing how challenging the pandemic has been for everyone, particularly food businesses, I asked Skopetos how they’d fared over the past nine months. In fact, she told me, she’d been in awe of the community awareness and positivity, which had expanded her clientele. “I think the COVID situation brought people closer,” she says. “People really support us and I’ve been able to get to know my customers better.” Previously, many visitors would beeline for the yogurt section — currently, they have 14 homemade varieties on offer — but lately, she’s been selling more homemade dips and reheatable meals than ever before, to busy parents, older locals, and everyone in between.
And the audience is far from limited. “80 percent of people that come in aren’t Greek,” says Skopetos, who is quick to point out how thrilled she is to bring her native cuisine into non-Greek homes. “For me, food is a part of civilization for every country, and that’s the reason I wanted to get into the business to begin with — to introduce our culture to other cultures,” she says. She cooks and bakes the items herself, with a punishingly high standard: “I don’t serve any food to my customers that I wouldn’t serve to my children. The customer is my family, not a dollar bill.”
Though her 18-hour-a-day schedule is difficult, Sophia isn’t slowing down this season. She’ll be baking baklava and holiday cookies including a braided variety known as koulouraka in addition to Vasilopita, a cake-like New Year’s bread with a coin baked in the middle. Whoever finds the currency is said to have a particularly auspicious year. Here’s hoping 2021 brings many a good-luck coin.
Leah Bhabha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.