For nearly a decade, Charles Bililies chased the pinnacle of fine-dining restaurant success. Extraordinary service. Michelin stars. Perfection in the smallest details.
But in 2010, everything changed. His desire to start his own business collided with a lightbulb moment at a dinner party, and Bililies went on a journey that led him to opening Souvla, a fine-fast Greek concept, in 2014.
While the menu and service model are decidedly fast casual, Bililies brought several fine-dining touchpoints with him to the business that have helped to turn Souvla into a massive Bay Area success with four locations. He reflected on those touchpoints on a recent episode of QSR’s podcast, “Fast Forward.”
Think like Thomas Keller
Bililies says the foodservice world was in his blood. His parents are both Greek, as well as small-business owners. His grandfather was a restaurateur.
“You combine that with just being in a Greek family, and like so many, food is very much the central subject,” he says.
He earned degrees in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University and Hospitality Management from Cornell University, and bounced around the country cooking for companies like Legal Sea Foods and Ritz-Carlton. Then, in 2006, Bililies moved to California to become the culinary assistant for renowned chef Thomas Keller. It was a role that didn’t exist before Bililies, and he simultaneously “wore a lot of hats” while also defining the role, one that included traveling with Keller and doing demonstrations with him.
“I had to, in pretty short order, learn to anticipate all of his questions and all of his needs,” Bililies says. “So I had to learn how to think like Thomas Keller.”
Thinking like Thomas Keller, he says, included being very detail-oriented and “seeing the things he was seeing.” For example, Bililies points to an excerpt from one of Keller’s books in which the chef says he will pick up cigarette butts outside the restaurant, even if it might be someone else’s responsibility.
It was the kind of lesson Bililies would take with him to his own company. “I very much try to instill that with all of our managers, to treat the restaurant and treat the operation as if it was your own,” he says.
Bililies later worked with other well-known chefs in the Bay Area, including Michael Mina. But even as he dedicated himself to excellence in fine dining, he felt the draw to opening his own place, knowing that he could bring with him the lessons he’d learned in a white-tablecloth setting.
“How can I take my experience in the fine-dining world, understanding at the highest level the service standards and touchpoints and detail that goes into operating these restaurants and creating these amazing dining experiences?” he says. “How can I understand more of the business side of it? How can I distill a lot of that down and find a way to sort of bring these two things together? And that’s how Souvla got started.”
Get him to the Greek
With his fine-dining pedigree established, Bililies also felt comfortable that he had a grasp on the various restaurant disciplines, having learned everything from cooking, hospitality, and wine to team management, human resources, business development, and financial practices.
And in 2010, the idea for his own concept finally came to him. He and his roommate hosted a series of dinner parties at their house where they would cook a whole animal on a rotisserie in the back yard. One day after a feast in which they’d cooked a whole lamb, Bililies pulled together a sandwich from the leftovers.
“We had some meat left over from the lamb, and someone had brought this beautiful heirloom tomato salad,” he says. “There just so happened to be some pita bread there and some tzatziki, and I made myself this leftover sandwich with the whole-roasted, chopped-up lamb meat. And the lightbulb went off, like, holy crap. It was like, ‘This is this is amazing. Why can’t I find this anywhere? Why can’t I buy this you locally?’”
At the time, chefs were reinventing everything from burgers to hot dogs to tacos in the fast-casual space. And gyros, he says, were mostly a mass-produced “mystery meat” that didn’t have a reputation for quality.
As such, Bililies saw an opportunity. He wrote a business plan, raised some capital, traveled around Greece, rewrote his business plan, and searched for great real estate—a process that took around four years.
Finally, in 2014, Souvla opened its first location in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. The menu was elevated, but straightforward; guests could choose from four main dishes—featuring pork, chicken, lamb, or vegetarian—served in sandwich or salad format. Sides included Greek fries, juicy potatoes, a side salad, and avgolemono soup (a Greek classic). There was also frozen Greek yogurt and an all-Greek beverage menu with beer and wine.
Bililies says the menu hasn’t changed in five years—despite his initial intentions.
“The thought was it was going to change quarterly. But we just happened to get super lucky where the opening menu just stuck and people loved it,” he says. “And now we couldn’t change it unless we wanted to deal with something like a mutiny on our hands.”
An iconic location
Part of the reason it took Souvla so long to open its doors was Bililies’ high standard for real estate. He says it took about two years to land the right storefront, about half of which was tied up in lease negotiation. And the space he finally opened in Hayes Valley was more expensive than other locations around the city.
Why did he wait so long when other, cheaper real estate was available? For one, he says he wanted to know for sure that if Souvla failed it was because of the concept and not because of poor real estate decisions. Second, he says, is that Souvla’s mission is to open restaurants on iconic streets in iconic neighborhoods in iconic cities—and the Hayes Street storefront offered that opportunity.
“We were able to get in and probably secure the last below-market-rate lease that existed in Hayes Valley,” Bililies says. “Now it’s five years later and … it’s the hottest, probably most desirable neighborhood, not only to live in, but also to shop in and to dine in. Part of that [decision] was just having some of that foresight.”
That first restaurant was about 1,000 square feet with 42 seats. Originally, the POS was in front of the rotisserie at the back of the restaurant. But Bililies says that was uncomfortable for the employee and forced the line to snake through the middle of the dining room. So the team build a service bar at the front of the restaurant, which made it more comfortable for the employee and even, invariably, created a great marketing tool.
“It forced the line to go out the door,” he says. “For a new brand just establishing itself and being in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of both local and tourist traffic… You’re walking around, you’re shopping, you walk into this place with a line out the door, and you’re like, ‘Wow, what is this? It’s got a line out the door. It’s got to be pretty good.’”
Souvla was far more successful than Bililies imagined it would be. Not long after, in searching for a second storefront, he asked delivery partner Caviar to provide a map of all of the restaurant’s orders—only to discover that the vast majority came from within one square mile of the shop. So Bililies and his team opened a second location just one mile away in the NoPa neighborhood, further establishing the brand as a San Francisco favorite.
“Never underestimate the importance of real estate,” he says. “I’m so grateful that I really stuck to my guns and had the patience to wait that out, because I do think that if we if we opened even around the corner from where we are, I don’t think that Souvla would have been as successful.”
No ordinary job
Aside from real estate, Bililies credits his company culture and team for turning Souvla into the success it is. He says at least a quarter of the team from opening day is still with the company, and that many who started in entry-level roles have been promoted to management.
“We have found so much success from promoting from within; two of the women that run basically all of the restaurant operations for us on a daily basis started in that [original] restaurant as counter servers taking people’s orders,” he says. “Now they’re on our leadership team.”
While Bililies says he dreams of developing other concepts and trying other creative endeavors, his primary role today is broadcasting his vision for Souvla and developing the team. A big part of that, he adds, is fostering a positive, productive work environment with the brand’s tagline at the core: “Make it nice and be nice.”
“We have 135 people now, and nobody raises their voice,” he says. “If there’s an issue or conflict, it’s addressed. It’s spoken about in a professional manner. We treat everyone in the restaurant, whether it’s a guest, whether it’s a fellow employee, whether it’s a delivery courier, whether it’s a driver dropping off the produce order, with the same level of respect.”
Souvla also provides a range of incentives for its employees to stick around. Managers work no more than 50 hours a week and get two days off weekly. Employees get two weeks’ paid vacation and full medical insurance, and can enroll in the company’s 401(k) program.
“This is not just a job where you sit in front of a computer and plug in people’s orders and hand him a number,” Bililies says. “With the right attitude and work ethic and drive, you can rise up into a senior management role.”