26 July 2019

A sweet little shop in
Limerick recalls Greek
heroes and entrepreneurs

Leonidas at No 22 O’Connell Street, Limerick, is sweet little shop that recalls the career of an innovative Greek entrepreneur (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

No 22 O’Connell Street, Limerick, is a sweet little shop in every sense of the word. This shop is a pretty, terraced and diminutive single-bay, two-storey building, built around 1900.

The fluted, full-height pilasters are joined by a plain rendered band at the parapet level, and there is a modern timber shopfront at ground floor level that dates from about 1990.

The round-arched window opening has a rendered reveal, painted sill that is possibly replacement, and a 1950s timber casement window.

This building has a pitched artificial slate roof that is hidden behind the parapet wall and its cast-iron cresting.

Since I last wrote about this shop a year ago, the modern shopfront has been stripped back, and I could see this week how this reveals earlier woodwork and carpentry at this unusual building. But some may find the story of Leonidas is even more revealing.

I had often wondered how a branch of Belgian chocolates, with a little hint of luxury, came to be named after a Spartan general who could have hardly allowed himself any sweet little indulgence.

Is Leonidas named after the Spartan hero? (Photograph: Haarajot / Wikipedia / CCL)

Leonidas (Λεωνίδης), whose name means ‘son of the lion,’ was the warrior king of Sparta, and a member of the Agiad dynasty, claiming descent from Heracles. During the Second Persian War, Leonidas led the allied Greek forces to a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC while attempting to defend the pass from the invading Persian army. He is remembered in myth and history as the leader of the 300 Spartans.

A later Greek hero was Leonidas of Rhodes, who competed in four successive Olympiads – in 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC – and in each of these won three different foot races.

An athlete who won three events at a single Olympics was known as a triastes. There were only seven triastes ever, and Leonidas is the only one known to have achieved the honour more than once. He hardly achieved that on a diet of chocolates!

But while the Belgian chocolate company Leonidas uses an image of the Spartan king as its logo, the business takes its name from neither of these Greek heroes. Instead, the company was founded in 1913 by a Greek-American confectioner, Leonidas Kestekides (1876-1948), who first began producing his chocolates in the US.

Leonidas Kestekides was born to Cappadocian Greek parents in Nigde, Cappadocia, now part of modern-day Turkey. In his early adulthood, he moved from Constantinople to Greece and then on to Italy, where he became a wine merchant. He struggled financially before moving to New York, where he lived from 1893-1898 and worked as a confectioner.

He lived in Paris in 1898-1908. He visited Brussels in 1910 with a Greek delegation from the US and at a trade fair was awarded the bronze medal for his chocolate confectionery. He returned to Belgium in 1913, and founded the Leonidas chocolate brand after marrying Joanna Teerlinck from Brussels.

Leonidas opened a tearoom in Ghent in 1913, and a tearoom in Brussels in 1924. The brand and logo of Leonidas was adopted in 1937. The company was named after its founder by his nephew, but the name and design of the symbol were inspired by the marble statue of Leonidas in the Sparta Museum, in the belief that the Spartan myth is still important in European and Western culture and tradition.

The first shop outside Belgium opened 50 years ago in Lille in France in 1969. The brand soon went international, with shops in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, New York, at Harrods in London – and even in Athens.

Leonidas at No 22 O’Connell Street, Limerick, before the shop front was stripped away (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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