Rise, fall, rise again

How sweet: "I love them because they make people so happy," Melinda says of the eclairs that she bakes fresh daily. Photos by Max Cooper

Melinda Vetro's unlikely lucky number is 13. On Friday, Aug. 13, 2010, she reopened Old Europe at 13 Broadway St., restoring the original concept of the business she first opened with now-ex-husband Zoltan Vetro. Founded in 1994 in the Flat Iron Building, the humble cafe quickly became a popular local haunt. In 2007, Old Europe abruptly transformed into an overambitious restaurant/coffee shop/nightclub hybrid before folding entirely just two years later.

Melinda’s efforts to revive her bakery have brought her pastries back to the people as well and secured her position as a small-business owner. And, 20 years after moving to the United States without citizenship papers, a job or a thorough grasp of English, Melinda is in charge of her own life for the first time, she says.

She now honors Friday the 13th by offering specials on her handmade eclairs (among other things), the pastries that helped make Old Europe an instant local favorite when it first opened on Battery Park Avenue. Even though the eclairs aren't challenging to make, she says they're her favorite thing to bake. "I love them because they make people so happy," she says.

On Wednesdays, the shop offers two for one specials on the eclairs. Customers file in and out of the store, clutching nondescript cardboard boxes filled with confections. "I usually buy them for my daughters," says Beth Maczka, carrying a box of pastries home to her girls, Kenzie and Gaven (black diamonds this time, she says, though she usually buys eclairs). "It's one of their favorite treats."

Another customer, Leslie Carter, drops by for the eclairs. "I love coming here. It's an inviting place to come and have desserts." Carter says that she likes the eclairs because they're balanced and light in texture — although perhaps not in calories. "It's not overly sweet. A lot of eclairs are too sugary," she says, biting into the cream-filled dessert and spilling some filling on herself. "They're very creamy," she laughs.

Making the dough

Born in Hungary, Melinda enrolled in pastry school at the age of 14, graduating three years later with a repertoire that included classic Viennese, French and Bavarian techniques with a proclivity for the fluffy, light and creamy. "It's not such a special thing [in Hungary]," Melinda says of the pastry arts. "It's just like you learn roofing or plumbing or anything. You just become a pastry chef. It's just one of those things. So that's what I did."Not long after graduating, Melinda married Zoltan, who grew up "practically in the same village" as she did. Though the two are no longer married, Melinda calls him "Z," and they remain friendly. "Nobody knows me better," she says. "I spent most of my adult life with him. I think we'll be friends forever."

Melinda immigrated to the U.S. at age 21, settling with Zoltan in Minnesota. While her husband worked as a courier, she filled the lonely hours honing her pastry skills. "But I never thought about opening a business," she says. "I didn't speak English or have papers to go to work. I didn't have anything else to do in Minnesota, so that's what I did — I made cakes."

Zoltan pushed Melinda to continue baking, and to consider turning it into a moneymaking craft. "I was afraid," Melinda said. "No one in my family had ever owned a business. I was just going with the flow."

The couple moved to Asheville in 1991, first opening a small bakery in Woodfin. They opened Old Europe downtown in 1994, and welcomed their first son Bence soon after.

With all of her other relatives in another country, Melinda filled her life with baking while caring for her infant son. She was, in fact, back to baking three days after Bence was born. "I liked it. I got to create things and we were able to pay the bills," she says. It was, essentially, the reason the Vetros had emigrated from Hungary in the first place, in pursuit of the proverbial American Dream.

The fall

In June of 2007, the couple decided to expand (mostly under Zoltan's urging), closing the original Old Europe and purchasing a property at 41 N. Lexington Ave., where The Southern Kitchen and Bar is now located. The new building was much bigger, which afforded a large, in-house kitchen and a bar. It also saw the opening of the Z-Lounge, an upscale private nightclub in the rear of the building with a loud sound system and a dress code. The new layout also necessitated a full staff that Melinda says quickly ballooned from Old Europe's original five to nearly 40.

The Vetros had bitten off more than they could chew. In 2009, a foreclosure forced the sale of the property and Old Europe closed. "The way we lost it was so hard," Melinda says. "The building went back to the bank. We spent way too much money remodeling. We had big plans. And then the economy went down."

Shortly after that, the Vetros marriage fell apart, too. "And then I just stayed home depressed," Melinda says. "I felt so embarrassed. I was lost. We had the business ever since we moved here and I didn't know how to do anything else."

Melinda found a minimum-wage job at a retirement community’s dining facilities, where putting pastries on plates was cold comfort. "When I got my first paycheck, I realized that I couldn't take care of my son, buy rent, buy gas and groceries," she says.

“I won’t screw it up this time”

Instead of sinking into despair, Melinda pulled herself together, finding strength she didn't know she had. "You have no idea. I came [to America] and Z took care of all of the finances. I didn't pay bills, it wasn't my responsibility," she says. But while in the Lexington Avenue location, Melinda made a point to begin absorbing financial details. "I started learning where the money goes and where it's coming from, how much things cost. I learned enough to open this place. I sold any jewelry I had, my car, anything else that I could, and got ready to reopen [Old Europe]. I was pretty sure I could put the business back on track. It's been around so long and people like it. And they love it because of the pastries, not because of some crazy nightclub thing."

And indeed, in June 2010 when Melinda announced the reopening of Old Europe to Xpress she said, "I'm going back to basics … I won't screw it up this time."

Old Europe was back in business by the fall, and Melinda hit her stride, finding comfort with the pastries, a social life with the people who came to visit. "I'm happy listening to the radio and just rolling the dough, making eclairs or making cookies. I would be lost in an office. I would be miserable. It really works for me. I don't think I'm good at anything else. I'm just going to keep on doing it," she says.

The first winter brought with it snowfall totals of nearly 21 inches, crippling even some well-established businesses. "I was stressing through that winter. We were selling everything we could on eBay just to make sure that we could pay the bills," Melinda says. "So this winter, I tried to pay bills ahead and stock up the shelves with anything that's in a can or dry goods so we don't have to spend any money. But this winter's been pretty mellow and the business has been good. I survived the first year. And I know we're going to make it."

Becoming whole

Melinda and Zoltan’s son Bence, now almost 16, is a big part of the business (he’s the co-owner, in fact), spending many hours a week after school helping out at Old Europe. "He’s saved me — we're really doing it together," his mother says. Bence was a source of strength for Melinda through that first hard winter. "I was borrowing money from him so that we could buy heating oil. It was like that. As soon as I paid him back for it, we ran out again. We were in the backyard collecting firewood so we could build a fire in the living room and sleep there." 

Melinda says that hard times have honed Bence’s character. "You know, we had [Old Europe] before Bence was born. He went to private school, we skied in Switzerland and France, we'd go on cruises, that's how he grew up," she says. "I don't want to say he was spoiled, but he was. Now he's pretty down-to-earth. It's good for us to go through hard times to see that you really have to work hard and count pennies and be responsible and just save ahead, not just spend everything that comes in. You have to look ahead and plan, but still help others because there are people that don't even have what we do," she says. 

Melinda's new goals include finding a second baker to help her in the kitchen, enabling her to get out more, play volleyball (she recently joined a team), go out with friends, travel some. It's all part of enjoying independence, which she says is one of her biggest achievements. "Before I used to feel like, together, Z and I made a whole. It's like my necklace," she says, pointing to a silver circle that she wears around her neck. "Now I feel like I am the whole thing. I don't need anyone to complete me and be my other half. I'm good."

Flour child

“It's been great to see,” Bence says of his mother’s transformation. “I'm happy for her, and she's obviously very happy, too. It's empowering.” Especially, he says, after such a dramatically difficult time for his family. "We all were devastated. It was like our child, a business that we all were extremely committed to," Bence says. 

“Everything changed. We sold our house, we moved into an apartment and my mom went from owning a business to a minimum-wage job. It was just a drastic change.” But, he adds, without experiencing the realities of trying to live on a minimum-wage salary, his mom might not have found the motivation to do what she does best: bake. “That's what made her go forward and commit herself to this business and reopen it — she needed to make a living for us. And she really truly enjoys baking; it's her passion."

It’s sentiments like this that make it easy to forget that Bence is not yet 16, although his easy smile and affable personality make him appear every bit as youthful as he is. It’s a good reminder that hard work is sometimes the best teacher there is. 

“I have a much better outlook on life, now,” Bence says. “Going from something to nothing, reworking your way up, it's a good learning experience. This business has definitely humbled me. A lot of people used to think I'd be a brat. I had a lot of things and used to get what I wanted — I'm openly admitting that. Then this happened, and I understood where we were and I dealt with it. I feel happier now, actually. I've grown from this.”

And Bence is quick to mention that, although he first helped his mother without pay, he never felt like it was something that he was forced into. "She would never guilt me into anything,” he says. “I was always given a choice. She's super-committed and if it would [have to] be without me, she would have done it anyway. When she sets her mind to something, she's definitely going to accomplish it. There's no way of stopping her.”

Bence was recently invited to participate in the Global Young Leaders Conference in China. Melinda hopes to fund the trip by selling $20 gift certificates to Old Europe through the website for just $10 (visit http://www.shop.oldeuropepastries.com for more details).

— Send your food news to food@mountainx.com


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One thought on “Rise, fall, rise again

  1. luther blissett

    Great piece, Mackensy. I think most fans of the Battery Park Old Europe had early misgivings about the (admittedly, forced) move, regardless of the prevailing economic climate: it wasn’t just the size of the Lexington space, but the drastic change in atmosphere, epitomized by the attitude of the newly-recruited staff. Old regulars were made to feel unwelcome, bleeding away the built-up goodwill that keeps a place going through tough times.

    The “New New Old Europe” brought that back, and my sweet tooth wishes it all the best.

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