Adorning the walls of the popular Papa Cristo’s Greek Restaurant are pictures from the 1948 grand opening of what was then just a simple Greek market.
Sam Chrys opened C & K Importing Company, with the intention of bringing the foods and wines of Greece to Los Angeles. In 1968, Sam’s son and now the current owner, Chrys Chrys, purchased the business from his father to carry on the legacy and continues to import fine products from Greece like meats, seasonings, cheeses, olive oils, and other culturally true products.
In 1985, Chrys wanted to create the feeling of the famous Greek taverna in the middle of the wholesale meat market in Athens. He bought the adjacent property, and opened a small kitchen with 12 seats. Since then he has purchased the 2 buildings on either side and opened a dining room with seating capacity for 100 and a delightful sunny patio/garden. His ability to create old world hospitality, that feeling of welcome and comfort, along with incredibly delicious traditional Greek food, makes Papa Christo’s one of L.A.’s premier Greek restaurants and a favored destination. It’s reputation extends as far as the east coast and Greece itself.
As new businesses and restaurants start to populate the Mid-City landscape I thought I’d interview Chrys who runs a friendly but tight ship. How has he survived? What advice can he give to new struggling business? The interview revealed a caring and attentive businessman who never rests on his laurels.
TNN: Were you always convinced this was the kind of business you wanted to run?
Chrys: There was a time when I needed to make up my mind about what direction I wanted to go. Did I want to become a store that sold Frito’s, shoelaces, chips etc.? No, I decided I only wanted to sell imported Greek food indigenous to the middle east, the Balkans and to Greece.
TNN: What were some of the biggest changes you’ve made to adjust your business to the changing landscape?
Chrys: We had to change things several times. When a middle eastern contingent moved in we carried those items which were often the same as the Greek items but with different names. Then we had Turkish people, then Italian people. This neighborhood is constantly changing. It was Mexican and now it’s becoming Korean and Salvadorian. When my father moved in it was Japanese but he started this place because he knew the Greek church, St. Sophia, was to be built across the street so he knew it was a good opportunity.
TNN: What was one of the smartest business decisions you’ve made over the years. When you look back you can say “I’m so glad I….”?
Chrys: I’m so glad I opened Papa Christo’s Taverna. The restaurant did more than just add foot traffic. It offered an opportunity to be creative and being creative is the part that brings out your best. You don’t compete with others, you compete with yourself. If you come to work everyday with the idea that you are going to bring something new, do something better, if you come in with the attitude that you are going to elevate your business in any way, little, big, doesn’t make a difference, then you will have a good day. So, all of us here try to come in and have a better day today.
TNN: And what’s the worse decision you ever made?
Chrys: That I didn’t start the restaurant earlier! (laughter) I don’t think there have been any bad decisions. But it would have been great to have opened the restaurant earlier. It’s given people more reason to come here. Come for a little Greek coffee and some sweets. Buy some spices, bread, cheese, meat. Have a meal. Everyone is welcome!
TNN: You’ve succeeded in that. It’s so much fun to come here. You get free samples, buy some baguettes, olives. And the Greek coffee is amazing!
Chrys: And when you get greeted by someone here, its real. It’s not just someone doing what they’ve been told to do. One of the things that irks me in other restaurants is some kid walks by and asks “how’s it tasting?” They aren’t taking the whole experience into account. They aren’t asking if everything was enjoyable. We ask “is everything okay? Are you enjoying yourself?” We try to convey real care and concern for the customer.
TNN: So we have new restaurants opening up in our community. What are the kinds of mistakes they want to avoid making?
Chrys: I don’t know if mistake is the right word. Anyone opening up a new business is a brave young person. An entrepreneur. They should be applauded for taking a step and opening something. But that being said they have to understand what the need for their product is. They have to figure out what their role is and do the research. Are they going to be a convenience, a destination?
TNN: What’s the difference?
Chrys: A convenience is like 711. I’m a destination. If I didn’t have a parking lot I wouldn’t have customers because they come from far away. Downtown, Century City, Beverly Hills, Orange County. A new business has to figure out what their message is and make sure the whole experience works. You also can’t be too far from a freeway if you want to be a destination.
TNN: Tell me more about creating a destination business.
Chrys: A destination isn’t created overnight, it’s created over years. You have to be funded and you have to pay your dues
so persistence is important. You have to market and recreate yourself in your marketing. You can’t stay with one style. You need to expand your marketing agenda and probe to find out what’s going to bring in new customers. And when you bring in new customers are they enjoying the experience enough to bring someone else? You have to regenerate the people that do come. Use incentive plans to bring them back if they’ve enjoyed your place. Getting them in the door is one thing getting them to come back is another. If you can do that you are on the road to being successful.
TNN: It’s difficult to sustain a business.
Chrys: It’s much harder to stay in business than to open a business. Offer more than you expect to receive. I’ve never come into the store expecting to make any kind of money. I come in hoping to do a really good job and if I do, something will be left over.
TNN: Talk about the people you work with.
Chrys: We have a very strong family ethic. We hire people who use “please”, “thank you”, no “hey you”. We talk to each other by name. The biggest word in the English language is respect. We respect each other and the people who come in. We respect the fact that they come out of their way to come here. Respect. Respect. Respect. We don’t take anyone for granted.
TNN: How do you handle a complaining customer.
Chrys: The only money you lose is the customer who doesn’t come back. The customer who complains is your friend. The customer who walks out and doesn’t say anything isn’t helping you. But if a customer says “this is what I’d like to see” listen to him. He may like everything else but this one percent is bothering him. Let your customer interact with you.
TNN: Any other tips?
Chrys: Keep the place clean. Very important. People don’t want to eat in a place that’s below their standards.
TNN: What are some of the danger signals for a business? At what point do you have to become alert to potential disaster?
Chrys: Overconfidence is as bad as it can get. I think you wake up every morning scared. If you think you’ve done a great job and done everything you can do…that’s dangerous. You have to be open to checking every part of your business. You can’t conquer the world overnight.
TNN: What is your definition of a successful business?
Chrys: One that makes you happy. There is no such thing as dollars and cents making you happy. You will never get enough wealth. If you only work for money I think you are not a successful person. If you work with pride and at the end of the night your feet hurt, your back hurts, your head hurts and your workers and customers are happy, that’s Perfect! That’s as good as it gets. That means you did your very best that day. And if you walk out and you’re not tired and your feet and back don’t hurt and you didn’t talk to a lot of people then you probably didn’t do a very good job that day. If you work and you’re happy doing it, it’s the right thing. Work is good. Labor is not good.
TNN: Any last words of wisdom for our new businesses?
Chrys: You need to accommodate your community, sell something you are proud of and believe in what you do.