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Mama Jo: The Greek American Whose Breakfast Cart Conquered Downtown NYC

Joanna Despas, better known as ”Mama Jo,” and her famed breakfast cart. Credit:

The United States, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is a place full of stories of immigrants who succeeded and conquered the world despite every obstacle life could throw at them.

The story of ”Mama Jo” is another one of these inspiring tales, in which people, driven by an unquenchable desire to get ahead, manage not only to succeed by years of hard work but to carve out their own little empire.

Joanna Despas, a Greek immigrant who came to the United States in the late 1960s, is now among the most recognizable and beloved figures in the important street food scene in New York City.

Her small ”empire” may be nothing more than a breakfast cart, from which she sells dozens of types of coffees and breakfast foods, most of which are either Greek or Greek-inspired.

But that’s saying something for the great city of New York, where just making a living is not an easy thing, and where the street food scene is very competitive.

Starting out her life in northern Greece during the difficult post-war years of the country, Despas grew up in a family which was struggling to make ends meet.

Working in the fields, then going to school, then going back to work again was her daily routine, even from a young age.

As millions of others have done in the course of time, Despas decided to search for a better future in America.

She began her life there with no money and little knowledge of the English language. Her only riches were her motivation and her willingness to work and succeed.

Despas must have thought it was a safe choice for a Greek immigrant to get into the restaurant or food business when she bought her little cart and opened for business, selling breakfast food on the bustling streets of this huge American metropolis.

The Greek immigrant soon became famous among the ”Yankees” and her signature dishes, including spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and sausage and bacon sandwiches soon literally became the main breakfast dish in most of Manhattan’s offices!

Despas is no longer known in the streets of downtown New York City as “Joanna,” or even simply as “Jo.”

She is indisputably the one and only ”Mama Jo!”

Her nickname came about due to her motherly appearance as well as her constant smile, which makes her a familiar, almost mother-like figure for the thousands of employees of the countless firms along the streets of Manhattan.

At the age of 68, Mama Jo definitely has more energy and life inside her than many younger people do today.

When asked, she says that her secret, in a nutshell, is encompassed in the phrase: ”If you have a problem, leave it for tomorrow, babe!”

With an attitude like that, it’s not hard to understand how this Greek immigrant succeeded in her career on the tough streets of New York City. Keep up the great work, Mama Jo!


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