By Stamatina Mylonas
Anyone who lives in the Northeast United States can tell you the most popular diners, pizza shops, and restaurants in the area, are probably owned by a Greek person. Within our Greek American community, it’s common to have a restaurant business in the family. We grew up always having somewhere to hang out after school for a free lunch or dinner, surrounded by family. For many of us, our family’s businesses were even our first after school jobs. It taught us valuable life lessons and people skills that would guide us towards success as we grew up. This legacy of Greek restaurateur-ship in the United States is spread across the country and has an old and lasting impact on American culture.
Around the turn of the 20th century, immigrants from all over the world endured long journeys to chase the famous American dream. Greek migrants who arrived in the United States, secured honest and stable jobs, as cleaners in kitchens or cooks in restaurants. Some decades later in the ’50s and ’60s as immigration laws became less strict, Greeks who had family established in the US, left Greece to chase the American dream for themselves. By now, their relatives who had started out in the kitchen had become the owners and operators of their own establishments. All the more reasons for relatives from Greece to want to migrate to the US because they were guaranteed a job and even a dream of becoming entrepreneurs themselves!
This was quickly becoming an area of expertise and a tradition to hand down for Greek Americans seeking success by means of the food business. It was also a great accomplishment because many can attest to how difficult and stressful the food industry can be.
The Greek community truly has established a legacy and expert status in this industry, having this expertise recognized by publications like the New York Times and public figures like chef Bobby Flay. These establishments are seen as an ode to the classic Kafenion or café you would find in the heart of Athens. It’s a place to gather with friends, catch up on what’s happening in the community, and either have a coffee or a full course meal, depending on your mood!
Sometimes these restaurants pay homage to their Greek roots, with grand columns and white and blue accents becoming part of the architecture and décor. Others are more modern or Americanized to portray the classic diner style. One way to confirm that it’s a Greek-owned restaurant is to check the menu for classic Greek dishes. Although now these businesses are focused on serving popular cuisine for all cravings due to their diverse customer base, a taste of Greece is always on the menu!
The success ultimately comes down to one thing – these entrepreneurs’ spirit and work ethic were brought with them from their journeys from Greece. A restaurant is a fast paced non-stop environment, and Greek owners dedicated themselves completely, often working all day, every day to make their dreams come true. This spirit is still strong and helping the new generation open and lead their own businesses to success!
If you are interested in seeing more about the history and story, The Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia is hosting its annual Photo Tour event this March, focusing on the Legacy of Greek Diners and Restaurants. You can find more information on their website here: gahsp.org
Photo credits: CBS News/ Mylonas Family/ GAHSP Facebook page