For generations, Greek immigrants new to Buffalo have counted on the close-knit Greek community here for a foothold to a better future.
Whether it was a newly arrived cousin, someone from their home village, or a stranger from an entirely different part of Greece, established restaurateurs here would find a place for their countrymen in the family restaurant business. That newcomer would work long hours learning how to cook and manage operations. They would save their money and eventually open a restaurant of their own – always with the full blessing of their former boss.
“We compete, but we help each other,” said George Bechakas, co-owner of the Olympic restaurant, which has locations in Tonawanda and Cheektowaga.
The result is a thriving Greek restaurant community in Western New York that is as intertwined as the branches of an olive tree.
Today, many local restaurant owners and workers are related by blood, marriage or baptism. Almost all are members of the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Everyone knows everyone.
“People left many things behind when they left Greece. The Greek community here became everything they had,” said Father Christos Christakis, of Buffalo’s Hellenic church.
Though the flow of Greek immigrants has slowed over the years, it’s a tradition that continues today: restaurant workers learn the business from the bottom up, then branch off to start their own – often with financial and moral support from the restaurant owners who taught them the ropes.
There are no contracts, no non-compete clauses, no hard feelings when the new restaurant pops up in an already crowded and hyper-competitive landscape.
They pool their resources to form a buying group which gives them more buying power when purchasing ingredients and paper products.
It’s a foreign concept to American business owners in a society that is territorial about its business ventures.
“It’s a theme that’s universal to refugees and immigrants. You help one another. It’s more a culture of sharing,” said Hodan Isse, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management who specializes in international economics. “In America, from the time we’re born, we’re taught to be very proprietary about our ideas.”
But in the Greek community, success is meant to breed success. If you have the opportunity to help a community member succeed, you don’t stand in their way. You thank God for putting you in a position to help, and then you do it.
“If you don’t do it, it’s frowned upon. If your cousin comes over and you don’t give him a job, there’s something wrong with you,” said Peter Scouras, co-owner of the Towne Restaurant on Allen Street and brother-in-law of the Olympic’s Bechakas.
Scouras’ father George and Uncle Peter, both Greek immigrants, opened the Towne after working at Ted’s Hot Dogs and learning the business from Theodore Spiro Liaros, the Greek immigrant who opened the restaurant in 1927.
“People in the old country would say, ‘Old Ted went to Buffalo. He’ll give you a job,’” said Thecly Liaros, the founder’s granddaughter.
Several people who worked at the Towne went on to open their own restaurants. One of them is Pano Georgiadis, owner of iconic Elmwood Avenue eatery Pano’s. In turn, several of Pano’s employees have struck out on their own, too.
“When it’s time for them to go, it’s OK,” Georgiadis said. “Nobody stays a cook forever.”
Stavros Malliaris arrived from Peiraus, Greece, in 1977. He cooked at Pano’s until 1984, when he bought the former Taki’s Texas Hots right down the street with a loan from a fellow Greek and turned it into the successful Ambrosia restaurant. Today Ambrosia, which was in a rented building, is being consolidated into Malliaris’ successful Elmwood Avenue martini bar Nektar.
Today, all of Malliaris’ workers are Americans. Though the Greek economy is now infamously troubled, Greeks have prospered in their home country for the past few decades. Greeks haven’t had to flee civil wars, they have access to consumer goods like cellphones and sneakers, and Buffalo is no longer a thriving industrial center – for all those reasons, the wave of Greek immigrants to the region has all but stopped.
But American-born Greeks continue learning the restaurant business and striking out on their own.
Many owners’ offspring have gone on to become professionals outside the restaurant business, but almost all grew up working in the restaurant and helping out during their summers off from college. Still others have stayed in the business and are taking the reins in management and marketing for their parents.
At Kostas on Hertel Avenue, 27-year-old Yianni Pozantidis runs the kitchen and does the ordering. He started working at the restaurant at 7 years old, toasting 250 slices of bread every 30 minutes during the busiest hours.
At Nektar, Malliaris’ 22-year-old son Dmitri is deeply involved, promoting the restaurant on social media and bringing the restaurant into the digital age.
“Greeks are very stubborn. But as we get older, we have to get wiser,” said Malliaris. “The new generation has some great ideas and we have to let them have their input.”
That next generation of American-born Greeks is pushing Greek restaurants along in their evolution from small hot dog joints and breakfast diners to the higher-end restaurants they are becoming today.
Places such as East Amherst’s Zoe embrace traditional Americanized Greek staples like souvlaki, but also venture into more upscale territory, returning to the fresh seafood dishes rooted in Greece and mixing in gourmet American fare.
And though the industry faces stiffer competition than ever, especially from national chain restaurants, there is always room for one more Greek-owned restaurant in Western New York.
Greek-born Elia Pozantidis started as an 11-year-old dishwasher in one of the Bechakas family’s Lucky’s restaurants, which then had a location on Hertel Avenue. Elia and his brother Kosta struck out with Hertel Avenue’s Kostas when Elia was just 17. Their younger, American-born brother Alex owns Zoe in East Amherst. Pozantidis has also helped set up several of his other workers with businesses of their own.
“When a person commits 20 years of their life to you, working morning, noon and night, what more can you ask of them?” said Elia Pozantidis, co-owner of Kostas. “You can’t repay them with $10, $15, $20 an hour. All you can do is what’s in your heart and make it easy for them to make their own way.”