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The King of Gyros

The oldest of four brothers, Yanni Chalkias wasn’t the first in his family to find his way into the restaurant business, but he was one of the youngest. Having immigrated to Cleveland from Greece just shy of his tenth birthday, he recalled the early challenges of a new land and a new language.

“In school, we only had 45 minutes of English. And the rest of the day, you had to already know English,” he chided. “That’s why I always did well in math—the other kids were jealous because I always scored higher than they did and I just got here. But I learned English in the restaurant.”

Chalkias eventually excelled, but his first classroom was the kitchen—peeling a few potatoes, washing a few dishes after school—embracing a new language and culture through interaction with employees.

Not unlike nearly every American restaurant today, the kitchen is still home to immigrants. Behind every counter and cooktop is someone who took a leap of faith, leaving family and familiarity to find a new future. Ethnic communities offer support for recent arrivals and help to retain ethnic identity through customs and cuisine. But it can also be insulating and isolating, preventing new neighbors from interacting and sharing their common culture.

Yanni eventually relocated to Columbus, where extended family were already established in the restaurant business. In 1987, his parents opened Vaso’s Greek Restaurant. But just four years later, Yanni saw the opportunity to introduce Greek food to a wider audience with what is now called a “fast casual” concept.

“Vaso’s was full service, so I wanted to do something different—gyros, fries, salads, and a few desserts. That was it,” Chalkias explained. He set his sights on a former Taco Bell off Hamilton Road, despite some of the challenges it posed. “They built it just like they did in California, so it had single-paned glass and no insulation.”

Since the extensive remodeling effort several years ago, it’s hard to find the old bones of that Taco Bell, but I remember them well. When I first moved to Columbus two decades ago, finding decent Greek food was high on my priority list.

My first real job in college was right across the street from a Greek joint that luckily kept the same late hours as the newspaper. And I used to ditch class in high school on occasion to grab carryout from a tiny Greek place out by the interstate. My father, while stationed at Quantico, became lifelong friends with the Greek owner of a local restaurant who also learned English in the kitchen and from his Marine patrons. The former fisherman and sponge diver even sent a cab full of wine and food to the maternity ward at the base hospital when I was born. I may not have Greek in my DNA, but it’s always been in my blood.

That’s probably why King Gyros seemed so familiar in those early days, and why it still does. Despite the aesthetic improvements and expanded menu, it’s still the same place that used to have a bathroom outside and around the back. And it’s why few family or friends who come to Columbus to visit leave without going there. It’s still a tight-knit, family restaurant—and whether you work there or eat there, you’re part of it.

“We survived 20 years like that, with just four tables here and three tables over there. But we had a lot of carryout and a lot of drive-thru service,” Chalkias noted. “There was catering too, but we had to do something. We had to expand.”

Rather than uproot the restaurant, he explored ways to expand in the existing space. A new dining room and patio seating with interior restrooms solved the capacity problem. An Acropolis-inspired façade and Mediterranean murals eliminated the obvious vestiges of the building’s taco tenure.

“Of course, all of this was happening right as the economy was collapsing, so some people thought I was crazy,” he recalled. “But I decided we weren’t going to survive otherwise.”

The renovations were further complicated by the decision not to close to potentially complete the project sooner. “We didn’t close a single day. We’re already closed on Sundays and holidays, but we didn’t close once during the entire process,” Chalkias said.

The new dining room and outside elevation were completed while the old dining area and drive-thru remained open. Only when the additions were finished were they finally connected.

“We worked with the health department and showed them if we did it this way, we’d never have to close the kitchen,” he explained. “We worked all night putting down tile on one of those two-day holiday weekends, but we didn’t grout everything in until Tuesday night. We opened Monday without any grout.”

It wasn’t just customer consideration that kept King Gyros open without interruption, it was concern for his employees as well.

“Our employees have been here for years. They needed to work, and we didn’t want to lose them. They’re our family too,” he said. “When someone new starts here and seven of our employees have been here more than eight years, that says something to them.”

Expanded space created opportunity for an expanded menu of traditional dishes and family recipes. Tender souvlaki (seasoned tips of filet mignon), fried calamari (breaded squid), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and spanakopita (spinach pie)—as well as some interpretations of more Midwestern fare, like cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of ground lamb and beef with decidedly Greek seasoning and sauce.

But there were some items that didn’t long endure. Begoto (fried smelts) weren’t an easy sell. Nor were moussaka (think shepherd’s pie) and pastitsio (somewhere between lasagna and a meaty baked mac and cheese).

“I grew up eating moussaka and pastitsio,” Chalkias explained. “It must be a generational thing.”

The kids, it seems, just aren’t keen on casseroles.

That’s probably true given the success of other menu items, like the expanded dip options with variations of hummus, eggplant, and garlic. And the feta bowls with a base of saffron rice, gyro, chicken, or souvlaki, topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and peppers, are a Greek reinvention of an increasingly familiar fast casual standard.

Never one to rest on his laurels (bad Greek pun intended), Chalkias is connecting with younger clientele through an active social media presence to fight the generational drift that slowly dooms family restaurants, as seen recently with the closing of The Florentine. The unique selection of Greek beer and wine also attracts the Yelp crowd and helps tempt and introduce the authentic charm to folks well beyond Whitehall.

The irony of starting as an alternative to a full-service restaurant and eventually becoming one hasn’t been lost on Chalkias, nor are the long odds of success with any restaurant offering ethnic fare outside a well-established ethnic neighborhood.

“We’re supported by the Greek church, and hope to have more special events like our anniversary with Greek music and dancers,” he said. “But it’s our customers, our staff, and our community that have helped us make it this far.”

King Gyros and Chalkias are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. For more, visit kinggyros.com.

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