Families might enter the restaurant business together, but it is rare for a concept to stay in the hands of relatives for multiple generations. It’s perhaps even more rare for a near century-old full-service restaurant to metamorphosize into a franchise-ready fast-casual brand.
Beating both odds, Florida-based Louis Pappas Fresh Greek is, three generations later, still family owned. After 91 years in operation, it’s also ready to franchise for the first time.
“I wanted to build a system that was useable, feasible, and profitable, and yet give the people what Pappas restaurant and the family has been giving for three generations, and that’s top-quality, healthy, fresh food and highlighting Greek specialties in a fast-casual arena,” says owner Louie Pappas, who is the grandson of the original founders, Louis and Flora Pappas. The couple immigrated from “the old country” to the U.S. just after the turn of the century. After World War I, they founded Louis Pappas “Riverside Café” in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Eventually the restaurant grew to a near 400-person staff and had seating for about 1,000 guests.
Their grandson Louie Pappas bought out his other family members about 20 years ago. At that time, he knew there were multiple options for growing the business: He could open more full-service restaurants, make the switch to inexpensive Greek fast food, or he could pursue the fledgling fast-casual model. Impressed by chains like Panera Bread, Pappas chose the last option, which allowed him to retain the original concept’s high quality within a more streamlined system.
“Here I was running a restaurant with 360-plus employees and doing several million dollars a year and I had to, not micromanage per se, but I was on top of everything all the time. We lived there practically,” he says. “To run the big restaurant in a corporate setting, we needed structure.”
Even though Pappas declares himself to be “no spring chicken” at age 60, he knew he was up to the task at hand. Pappas, who is a self-taught chef, bought a large warehouse to serve as a “cook/chill” commissary. Through this property, he was able to train other chefs, perfect recipes, and lay the foundation for a replicable system. Originally, Pappas and those chefs did all of the cooking in that warehouse, but once the recipes and systems were in place, the responsibility of making the food shifted to the individual restaurants.
“There’s a lot of moving parts on our menu, and our training has to supersede that. Our training has to be complicated as well, but yet very clear, concise, user-friendly, and easy to learn,” Pappas says. “Now we can honestly say our cafes are self-standing; they rely on themselves only, they don’t have a commissary anymore.”
Beyond quality, the attention to detail is so exact that the fast casual even boasts visual recipe cards for the more labor-intensive recipes. Pappas jokes that some of the young staff in the kitchen can’t spell “Greek,” but they can make these incredible dishes.
The former commissary, which now serves as a training center and R&D kitchen, is still active with the chefs reevaluating the menu at least once a year. Louis Pappas Fresh Greek even created a special library of dishes to keep the menu fresh; the team monitors various trends and sales for items to determine when one should swap in and when one should swap out.
All of these efforts indicate that after 91 years, Louis Pappas Fresh Greek is ready for the franchise big leagues. Currently the brand is negotiating a license agreement for a food court–style unit within the Tampa International Airport.
Pappas is excited by the possibility of expansion, but he is also wary. For him, deciding whether to go into business with a franchisee will always be a matter of quality over quantity. Ideally they will be experienced and dedicated operators looking to add a fresh new concept to their portfolio.
Pappas has children of his own now with the elder of the two in college. He says that one day his children may continue with the family business, but he isn’t pressuring them.
“I got thrown in the business when I was 15 years old, I’m not going to do that to my two boys they’re going to make their own minds up,” Pappas says.
By Nicole Duncan