Columbus, Ohio USA
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Europia: Pia Hiotis's 10-Year-Old Dream
by Karen Edwards
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© Photos by Rick Borgia
For 10 years now, you may have strolled past Europia without realizing that its existence – like its location in the Short North – was inevitable. Why that’s true involves a story.
First, meet the main character, Olympia (better known as Pia) Hiotis. She is Greek, “one hundred percent Greek,” she’ll tell you, and she springs from a long and entrepreneurial line of beauty shop owners and restaurateurs living in Dayton, Hiotis’s hometown.
As a young child, Hiotis loved spending time in her grandfather Pete’s Coney Island diner. “If I hadn’t moved to Columbus, I might have taken it over from him,” she says. But Hiotis did move to Columbus – the result of a passion for tennis that not only drove her to spend time on the courts daily, but also to run tennis and racquetball clubs in Dayton.
“The owner of the clubs where I worked had purchased some tennis clubs in Columbus, and he wanted me to run them for him,” she says.
Running tennis clubs, she knew, was not going to be her long-term career. Nevertheless, Hiotis was open to the move and new experiences, so she arrived in the Capital City to run both the Wickertree and Buckeye Athletic Clubs. It wasn’t long after that, however, that greener pastures appeared. Through relationships formed at the tennis clubs, Hiotis found herself applying for, and, finally reaching what, in the 1980s, was considered the Holy Grail of work experiences – a position as a buyer’s assistant at Les Wexner’s red-hot Limited stores.
For Hiotis, her time at The Limited was an exhilarating experience – travel, “great money” and a job that, admittedly, consumed her life. “The work didn’t bother me,” she says. “I enjoyed it.” It also taught her lessons she would use while running Europia – merchandising skills, budgeting, customer service, hard work and long hours.
Each paycheck Hiotis earned at The Limited was saved or invested – as much as living expenses allowed. “Because of my family background, I knew I would work for myself one day. I wanted my own business,” she says. And after nine years, she had the money she needed to set up shop for herself. Hiotis left The Limited, but there was one small catch. She wasn’t exactly sure what her next step would be.
The journey begins
“I knew I didn’t want to buy a franchise or anything like that,” she says. So she began to explore her options. “The Greeks invariably go into food as a business,” she says. And she had spent a lot of time in her grandfather’s restaurant. Still, it had been a while since that experience, so Hiotis decided to see what it was really like to work in and run a restaurant. “I wanted to work in a Greek restaurant to help me decide if I should open a restaurant or deli featuring my heritage,” says Hiotis. PJ’s Restaurant in Grandview quickly hired Hiotis, and, as with The Limited, she threw herself into the work. Soon, she was running the kitchen, but in the process realized that kitchen work, while rewarding, was also brutal – and not the kind of thing she envisioned doing the rest of her life. She left the restaurant, and slipped into sales, taking a job as an outside representative for a food vendor.
“It rounded out my education,” Hiotis reports now, including allowing her to make contacts and learn more lessons she would put to use while running Europia. After a year as a sales rep, Hiotis was ready for her own business. She had lived in the Short North for 10 years, and was aware that one thing the area lacked was a carryout – some place residents could go for beer, wine and snacks. But Hiotis wasn’t about to settle for just any carryout. She wanted an upscale, gourmet carryout – something that didn’t exist anywhere else. It was a vision that was uniquely Hiotis’s. Of course, location for the store would be key.
“I knew that being in the heart of the Short North was critical,” she says.
Hiotis contacted a realtor and told him she was looking for a storefront on High Street, but she gave him only a two-block spread to look in – somewhere between Buttles and Russell.
“I wasn’t in any rush,” says Hiotis. “I was willing to wait until something in that area opened up.”
And something eventually did.
In 1997, Europia, Hiotis’s dream of a gourmet carryout, had finally, inevitably, found a home at 672 N. High Street, between Buttles and Russell, and within a few short blocks of her home.
To step inside Europia today is to step inside Hiotis’s life, her heritage, her vision, her dreams. It’s all there – from the chandeliers that parade down the length of the store to the elegantly draped wine-tasting room she has created in the shop’s basement. Top to bottom, it’s all Hiotis’s vision, her creation, and one she is justifiably proud of.
The store has changed over its 10-year history. Of course it has. No business rises to success from stagnation. At Europia, merchandise racks are no longer at angles across the polished hardwood floor, and the shop no longer carries cooking ingredients – the truffle oils and fruited vinegars with which Hiotis once tempted customers. She determined long ago that her customers search for those products elsewhere, and that the space could be much better utilized for other items more uniquely Europia.
Today, the store is streamlined, as shipshape as a yacht, with walls full of wine, coolers full of beer, and large glass containers full of fragrant coffee beans lined up across a shelf at the rear of the store. Scattered here and there throughout Europia are fragrant cigars, spicy (and not-so-spicy) snacks, including smoked salmon and blue-cheese stuffed olives. There are mixers, ice, newspapers, gourmet bulk coffee, and the kind of high-quality chocolate that will send you swooning with just a bite or two.
“I never take on a vendor’s whole line,” says Hiotis. “I choose only their best products.” And when she travels, she keeps her eyes open for new products to bring back to her shop. That’s how an especially aromatic coffee-scented candle found its way onto her shelves.
Before you get the wrong impression, Europia is not the kind of place that would typically sell candles. But when Hiotis was traveling through Florida, she stumbled across a candle that, she says, “knocked my socks off.” The candle was one of few she had ever found that kept its fragrance, even after frequent lightings. And the smell was so intense and real that, when it burns, you’d swear you’d just stumbled into a Starbucks.
“I sell coffee, so I thought this was one candle I’d be willing to sell,” she says.
Yet simply ordering a couple dozen candles isn’t Hiotis’s style. Instead, she worked with the maker to brand her order with the Europia name. Now it’s not just a fragrant, quality candle that sells in her store. It’s her signature candle.
The wine selection
Europia may be best known for its selection of wines, however. If you’ve stopped by Europia during a Gallery Hop evening, you know that wine tastings are held in the back of the shop, and tastes sell for $2 each. Sure, that sounds a little high – until you realize this is Hiotis’s careful collection of fine wines you’re sampling. A bottle of what you taste might sell for $20 to $30. If that’s a little out of the realm of what you usually pay for wine, then you’ll appreciate the opportunity to see what a really great $30 bottle of wine tastes like. And if that price is within your reach, you’ll still be glad for the try-before-you-buy opportunity.
Hiotis says she has doubled her wine inventory over the last 10 years – and has tripled her selection of champagnes. Right now, Spanish red wines are hot, “they’re such good value for the money,” she says, but all of her wines have their fans – including those sampled at the monthly wine tastings, held in her wine-tasting room downstairs. Hiotis has been conducting private tastings for corporations and party-throwers ever since Europia opened. The events proved so successful that, seven years ago, she decided to renovate the shop’s basement so she could have regular tastings away from the shop’s general traffic.
The downstairs tasting room is draped tastefully in theatrical-red material, and the sealed stone walls give the room a proper rathskeller look. Look up and you’ll find that the ceiling is tin-paneled. “It reflects light so it helps brighten the room,” says Hiotis.
Instructors for the tastings are wine representatives whom Hiotis rotates through the annual schedule, so no one vineyard dominates. Six to eight wines from one country are usually sampled (and talked about) and hors d’oeuvres are served – all for $25 a person. Reservations are required because the tastings are limited to about 24 people, and they fill quickly. “We have our regulars,” says Hiotis with a laugh.
About a year-and-a half ago, Hiotis decided that wine and beer were no longer enough to keep customers content. It was time to pursue a license allowing her to operate as a state liquor store.
“We had numerous requests from customers over the years, asking us to sell liquor in addition to the wine and beer,” she says.
Manager Bob Corkwell and owner Pia Hiotis
toast to Europia's 10-year anniversary
Liquor and chandeliers
So, ever mindful of her customers, Hiotis once again rolled up her sleeves and began the lengthy and complicated process that would make that happen. It’s to her credit, not to mention her perseverance, that, last fall, Europia became a state liquor store – the first, as Hiotis likes to point out, that’s lit by chandeliers. “Usually, there is a generic presence to most state stores,” she says.
Yet Europia defies that tradition as surely as it has defined a new, more elegant way to sell wine and beer.
As the cliché goes, “If you build it, they will come.” From the day Europia opened, it never lacked for customers. Male, female, old, young, gay, straight, wealthy and not-so-wealthy all shop here. “Judges from the courthouse visit here on their lunch hour, looking for a nice bottle of wine,” she says.
Hiotis says she is looking forward to an influx of new business as Short North condominium development continues.
“It’s good for the neighborhood,” says Hiotis of the condo boomlet. “It brings in people who will have a greater commitment to the community,” she says.
Of course, when these new customers do arrive at her shop, Hiotis will be there to greet them, along with manager Bob Corkwell. Both of them – along with a staff of seven part-timers – are there to help you find the perfect bottle of wine for your dinner, the perfect cigar or liqueur for after the meal.
“We also have customers who stop by just to say hi or to talk and hang out,” says Hiotis.
That’s because it’s hard to miss the sense of fun that permeates every spare inch of Europia. It’s there in the staff’s passionate advice (and discussions) with customers; it’s there in the laughter that rings throughout the day.
“My staff is like family,” Hiotis says – and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say Hiotis treats her customers the same way.
Of course, it’s easy to make everyone feel welcome and happy when you feel the same way. And Hiotis is happy.
When Europia opened, one of Hiotis’s grandfathers, a Greek Orthodox priest, came to bless the shop. There is still a small Greek cross over the front door. “It makes me feel safe,” says Hiotis, and no doubt blessed, because Hiotis is living a life she carved for herself. From nothing but a dream, she has created the kind of quirky, quality, warm and welcoming place that thrives in the Short North, and it’s not really surprising that it does. After all, considering Hiotis’s background, experience, family and cultural heritage, could Europia be anything else, anywhere else?
Talk about inevitable.
Europia, 672 N. High St., is open 7 days. Call 614-460-3000 or visit their Web site at www.europiagourmet.com
2007 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.