John and Francesca Vrattos had a wonderful life of family, travel, and career success; he as the sales manager at Parisian Bakery/Colombo Baking Company, she as an office manager. Then came the recession. Both were laid off from their jobs in 2009, and eventually they lost their home.
That Christmas, their daughter gave them a Kitchen Aid mixer. “I always loved to cook, and we began making sausages,” Francesca says. Though she was completely self-taught, her first recipe, a Greek-influenced pork sausage called Loukaniko, was a hit. With a few more recipes developed, she and John decided to open a restaurant.
“Our idea was a takeout place. We found a little hole in the wall, not much bigger than a bedroom.” But it wasn’t easy. The property they had their eye on had little foot traffic, and they were inexperienced. “The landlord didn’t even want to rent to us!” says Francesca. Eventually they convinced him, and after four months’ preparation, they opened their doors. “I had never operated a cash register before, or a credit card machine.” Within two months, their sausages had won the Best of Charcuterie award at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
Still, building the business was a slow road. “We got audited by the IRS the first year,” says Francesca. “They couldn’t believe we had made so little money!” After they had lost their home in foreclosure, it was hard to find a place to live, and they ended up having to move to a high-crime neighborhood. They sold the jewelry John had given Francesca over the years, and shopped at the Dollar Tree to make ends meet. “We went from traveling the world to almost as low as you can go.”
They stuck by the Greek ideal of philotimo, a Greek word that means to take pride in self, pride in family, and pride in community. “We had a few employees over the years, but mostly it was just me and John,” says Francesca. “We went through hard times, you have to just keep focusing.”
Through it all, they stuck to John’s business plan. Over eight years they racked up so many stellar Yelp reviews, a Yelp senior manager came by to see what all the raves were about. They had customers lining up for up to forty-five minutes to get a taste, including two memorable visits from actor Jim Belushi. They made the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Cheap Eats. The landlord who initially didn’t want to rent to them? “He lowered the rent,” says Francesca. “And was amazed at what we had accomplished from that little space.”
Then one day a couple of years ago, “I turned to John and said, ‘I can’t keep standing on my feet 10 hours a day!'” says Francesca. They went back to their business plan, and they knew it was time to execute the next phase. They sold the restaurant, and began work on their retail line of sausages.
The timing could not have been worse, as the devastating Santa Rosa fires hit in the fall of 2018. But John and Francesca kept going, and five months later Yanni’s Sausages was launched.
John’s prior business experience has helped them time and again over the years, but especially now that Yanni’s sausages are sold in 43 stores and 30 restaurants. They have a co-packer who produces the sausages using their recipes, but John and Francesca still “throw freight” into their delivery van. “1200 pounds yesterday!” she says. Having now developed eight sausage flavors, her favorite part of the job is developing new recipes. Chicken Lemoni is her personal favorite, followed closely by The Greek and the Beer Brat.
John and Francesca will continue to follow the business plan that has served them so well. On the very last page the plan has them on a plane, flying to Greece, where they’ll pursue dual citizenship. “I told you we’d do it,” John will say.