Women in Business: Voula’s Offshore Cafe

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It’s no secret that Voula Vlaho loves her customers.  She’ll tell you so herself on days when, stepping out of semi retirement, she shows up at Voula’s Offshore Café on Northlake Way, within sight of Lake Union. voulas1

“I just love to be with people,” says Voula, a spry, compact woman with salt and pepper hair. She’ll give you a maternal hug and point to the wall papered with pictures of her many customers and their children. She believes you have to love your customers. That, she insists, is “Greek philosophy.” She invites customers to call her “mama.”

Known for Greek specialties, good food and generous portions, Voula’s café celebrated 30 years at 658 NE. Northlake Way on Sept. 11. The celebratory balloons still hung along the back wall. The cafe today is managed by Voula’s sons, Sikey and Nikos.

Voula and her husband, natives of Lamia in Central Greece, were dawn to the Seattle area by a brother-in-law who was teaching in Bellevue and who told them it was beautiful here.  She declares, “One day we decide to come. It was important for my son’s education.”

Voula tells of helping at her kids’ school, lending a hand to the teachers and to “the library lady.” Realizing that it soon would be time for her eldest son Sikey to go to college and, although her husband was employed as a tailor at Nordstrom, she felt that, to afford a college education, she herself needed to go to work.

Eventually, Voula decided that she’d had enough working for others and wanted to open her own café. She bought the small place on Northlake, completing the deal for Voula’s Off-Shore Café Sept. 11, 1984. Her eldest son Sikey helped, coming in mornings before class and returning at lunchtime. The place was small at first. Eventually they were able to add an addition, a non-smoking section.

voulas3Voula’s specializes in homemade foods, from egg scrambles to homemade pies. The specials include such basics as meatloaf and something called “a Chinese pancake,” which features ham and eggs ringed with a giant pancake. The menu often features home-smoked salmon and Greek favorites like tasty gyros and dolma. It’s not unusual to find glass artist Dale Chihuly, who has a nearby hot-shop, chowing down at a neighboring table. But, if you want a hearty weekend breakfast, be prepared to wait, perhaps on a bench outside, until there’s a vacant table.

In the beginning, Voula catered much to the Alaska fishermen docked nearby. Although the café didn’t open until 6 a.m., she’d have coffee ready at 5 a.m. for workers who maybe had enjoyed too much beer the night before and longed for coffee in the early morning.

Being an independent woman, Voula thinks, has never been much of a problem.

She does recall that the fishermen learned to wait on themselves, pouring their own coffee. That is, they all did, except for one newcomer who plunked himself down at the counter one morning and loudly demanded: “Woman, bring me a cuppa coffee.” The early morning customers fell silent, looking over at Voula who didn’t budge. She says, “That was the first and last time he said that. He never did again.”