My daughter in front of Cookology in Dulles Town Center days before it opens in January 2009.

In The Beginning…

I opened Cookology when my daughter was 4, this year she’s 14! Over the past ten years it’s been an absolute dream come true to be able to work on something I love with people I love, while being able to maximize what I envisioned a “working mom” meant to me. I wanted a job or business that gave me the flexibility to attend every field trip or school meeting. I wanted to be able to take her to the doctor at the drop of a hat, stay home when she was sick, and pick her up from school–and I did. As she gets older I am able to drive her around or be there for her at a moments notice.

There were times over the past ten years when the business struggled, or employees quit without notice, but no matter the issues, running this cooking school has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve been truly blessed to be able to offer the service we offer, and help other customers learn the best way to feed themselves and their families.

When my daughter was 12 and close to being 13, I was talking to her while she was on her iPad…when I repeated my question… I’ll never forget this…she gave me the classic teenage look…like WHAT COULD YOU POSSIBLY WANT? WHO ARE YOU? YOU ARE BOTHERING ME. As looks go, this one felt like the end of an era. Call me dramatic..I am half Greek, and Greeks invented drama, so yes this was a low point for me. I walked away teary eyed, knowing that the time I’d been dreading…the teen years…was here or close on my heels.

For the few months that followed, as she became more and more independent and less of the little girl I knew, I truly grieved the fact that the time of her being my little gloriously happy and goofy kid was coming to a close. Ugh…here come the tears again. We went everywhere together…she could make me laugh like no one else…and while I’m still absolutely enamored of her (75% of the time) now as a teen, I will cherish all of the flexible mommy and daughter time we had that owning Cookology gave to us both. We have great memories and because of that an impenetrable bond.

What this flexible time didn’t do for me over the last 10 years was grow my company.  I knew I’d taken a big risk in the beginning, and had to keep it going no matter what the economy offered us, because everything I owned was collateral for the SBA loan–and failure was not an option. I had the keychain and the bumper sticker. It was my mantra. I buckled down, shrunk my social life, turned down networking events, and committed to my daughter and Cookology at Dulles Town Center.  They were pretty much all I had time for, and the only two topics of conversation I had for many years.

Arlington Comes Knocking!

I can pinpoint the “look” from my daughter as the moment I started to rethink my future. Having a restless spirit and the desire to always be working on something, I knew I had to make a decision about expanding Cookology or look for something else to do.

In January 2017, I put my resume together, updated my Linkedin profile, and started asking a few friends and family members for advice. The idea was to keep Cookology in Dulles running, which it was doing on its own because of my amazing staff.  As for expansion, I wasn’t sure if I had the desire to go through the process of fundraising for another location.

I definitely wasn’t going back to the federal criminal organization called the Small Business Association (SBA) for money, or the bank–they’re worse. I knew if I was going to pursue another location I needed OPM…other people’s money…and in walked Forest City REIT. They were in love with the concept of Cookology, and they loved my staff, all of whom happened to be at the store that day for a meeting.

When we met I definitely had an infinite amount of respect for their company.  They’d managed to be in business for 100 years and it is currently worth $6 Billion. I was happy to hear them validate my concept by simply understanding what I was trying to do. They were impressed that I’d opened in the economic downturn in 2009 and was still going strong after 9 years.

Forest City saw what I’d been seeing for years happen with retail, what I’d been watching happen in my 20 years as a marketing pro prior to opening Cookology, that every product or service, for it to be sold, needed to be experienced. We used to call this guerilla marketing…and in my years in the private sector from Discovery Channel to Aaxis Technologies, my goal was to find a way for customers to experience what they were seeing, buying and using.

Having Cookology in a mall came from the simple understanding of REITs, yes some were dying, but they were a big part of the portfolios for publicly traded real estate investment trusts. I felt in my gut that one day malls were going to change to be service centers–or as they call them now experiential centers.

Obviously, you can’t dump thousands of square feet unless your mall is in a dying city or county…and Loudoun County was and still is on the top of wealthiest counties in the country–so Dulles Town Center Mall, owned by the Lerners, another savvy business family (they own the Nationals Baseball Team!), was not going anywhere, and the Lerners were gracious enough to give me a chance to open a new concept never seen before in a mall.!

Getting open…

Fast forward to 2017, Forest City REIT and I spent several months–like 14–negotiating a lease, another 10 months simultaneously designing the store within 5900 square feet of Ballston Quarter Mall nee Ballston Common Mall, and I am happy to report we will be opening late November or more likely early December this year. The first construction company, Teel Construction, sent a guy to most every architect meeting, who allowed us to go wildly off budget by $1M…lol. I guess he thought we’d just make up the difference and he’d be his company’s hero. #Fail.

So what should’ve started in February was delayed because we had to rebid the project with a new contractor. Teel, at my demand, was not invited back. I had 36 hours to completely redesign my entire cooking school with the architects at DBI, reconfiguring over a year of work, then wait to resubmit permits and then wait again for Forest City to choose another contractor that was within budget in August…and here we are.  Patner Construction was the winner and they seem to be on top of it.

If you know me, you’ve heard me say that my goal is to open a Cookology in every mall in the country…so here we come Mall #2, 10 years after the first one!  Yes, we are keeping Dulles Town Center open!

Stay tuned for construction updates here, as this is my life and there is never a dull moment!

Maria Kopsidas
October 1, 2018

Patner Construction, DBI Architects, & Team Cookology in the space in Ballston!
I think Jenna and Will were trying to spell YOC…but we’re not sure. L to R: Paul Miller, Chef Jenna Dawson, Will Bushey, Mafelida Diaamano, Maria Kopsidas
The Plans…the Second Version!