Tom Eblen: Dream of Greek restaurant affirmed with food truck experience

Curbside business fuels immigrant's ability to open a restaurant

Herald-Leader columnistMay 5, 2013 

Since food trucks and stands started popping up in Lexington a few years ago, they have become popular with customers but created tension with bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

Some restaurant owners have fought efforts to make food trucks more accessible, saying their low overhead makes them unfair competition. So far, the city has only permitted them to operate on private property or at special events.

Council member Shevawn Akers chairs a food truck ordinance work group, which has streamlined the permitting process. Last week, the group came up with a proposal that council should approve. It would allow a pilot project to let food trucks operate in designated downtown parking areas.

What will be interesting to see is how many food truck operators go on to start restaurants.

Ilias Pappas, owner of the Athenian Grill food stand, is well on his way.

Pappas, 33, was born in Lamia, Greece, and emigrated to this country to attend college at Lexington Community College, the University of Kentucky and Florida International University. After working in technology in Miami for a year or two, he returned to his first love: food. He worked in several Miami restaurants.

Pappas had grown up living over a bakery and eating traditional Greek food prepared by this mother and grandmother. While attending college in Lexington, he had helped his aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, a welder and a chef. They also were caterers and became popular fixtures at community events over the years, serving barbecued lamb and Greek gyros.

Then tragedy struck: George Ouraniou, 71, died in a car wreck in September 2011. Pappas returned to Lexington to help his aunt. Then he moved back for good a few months later.

"I never imagined I would end up living here," Pappas said of Lexington. "But I realized this was the place I wanted to stay."

Pappas said his uncle had always dreamed of opening a Greek restaurant, but never did. Pappas had the same dream, and figured a food truck would be an affordable way to start.

Last September, he created Athenian Grill, a food stand serving four types of gyros, Greek salad, spinach pie, Cypriot meatballs, hummus and baklava. With help from several friends, it became a popular fixture outside Country Boys Brewing and West Sixth Brewery and at Thursday Night Live on Cheapside.

"I didn't have a business plan; I learned on the job," Pappas said. "The (brewery) owners have been very good to me. The exposure I got as a food trucker provided opportunities for exposure and allowed me to introduce myself to people."

That has led to catering and event opportunities. But Pappas wants to do much more than he can do now cooking on the street and preparing things in advance in commercial kitchen space he rents in Nicholasville.

"The food truck doesn't allow me to give people a good exposure to a traditional family-style Greek dining experience," he said. "It's very limited what you can do out on the street."

So Pappas has rented the former Belle's Bakery building in Chevy Chase — an old two-car garage set back off South Ashland Avenue between Euclid and High streets— and has begun renovations. He hopes to open the restaurant in July.

In addition to a few inside and outside tables, the non-mobile Athenian Grill will have lunch delivery and a Greek market upstairs, which can be booked for small private dinners. In addition to traditional Greek food, Pappas plans to offer some of the flavors he grew to like while working in Miami.

"Ninety percent of the menu will be things you cannot find in Lexington at the moment," he said.

Pappas is financing the venture with his own savings, plus loans from family and friends. He also has launched a campaign on Kickstarter.com, as much to attract community involvement as financing.

"Because of my food truck, people have given me the chance to take the next step," Pappas said. "My uncle worked very hard in the food business. I want to dedicate my restaurant to him."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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