An old Greek man walks out of Athena’s, a bakery on Illawarra road. His hair is silver and he’s carrying two bags, each bulging with cake boxes. “I’ve been a customer here for 35 years,” he says. Five minutes later another man walks in; his eyes are wrinkled at the side, like a lolly wrapper. He says the same thing.
“We've been here for a long time,” says Chris Ahtypis, the most senior working member of the Athena Cake Shop family business. “Since 1974, the same family. My in-laws started this business back then and I've been here since 1982.” It’s also the year he met and married his wife, Efy Ahtypis.
“Before, this area was a desert. There was nothing here to keep people,” he says. He points down the road to a new development and shopfronts in construction stages. The shop has Greek platters piled high with cakes and tied with bows. The branding has been spruced-up by some embossed gold, but Athena’s traditional Greek cakes and its customers have otherwise remained the same.
The best-preserved time capsule is the front window, stacked with Greece’s most classic treats, galaktoboureko and baklava. Galaktoboureko is a custard cake made by boiling and then baking coarse semolina flour with milk, eggs and butter. It’s soft, spongy and sandwiched in sticky filo pastry. The baklava is stuffed with almonds and walnuts and is lavishly coated in syrup. Everything here is handmade by Ahtypis or by Olga, Dimitra and Harra, Athena Cake Shop’s squadron of older Greek women.
“I have three or four ladies; that's what they do.” Their speciality is Greek pies. Spanakopita, a filo-pastry package of spinach, ricotta and feta, is the bakery favourite. “The ladies use the traditional way – we make our own pastry. They roll it one by one; it's a long process. It's not just put in the machine,” Ahtypis says. There’s a sweet pie, too – bougatsia. It’s like a ricotta cheesecake wrapped in filo pastry. In Greece the two pastries are usually eaten as a quick breakfast, or enjoyed as street-side snacks. “Every corner here you see meat pies and sausage rolls. In Greece you have spanakopita,” Ahtypis says.
Cakes are a mid-afternoon thing. “In Greece, after you finish work, you take a nap and at 6pm, people go to the cafeteria for coffee and sweets. The lifestyle is different to here,” says Ahtypis. But it does seem the same thing happens here – the customers are like family. “Most of them I know by name now. They come in and ask, 'Is Chris here?’ It's very friendly.”