The biggest event happening in my area is the opening of a new shopping center that has the chain food stores, Chipotle and Panera Bread… whoop-tee-doo! My kids are excited… I’m yawning, a really big yawn. There is something sinister about these CFSEs or “chain food service establishments” (I refuse to call them restaurants). Something is missing from them. Something very un-American. Something dastardly. What is it?
Ah, yes, I know. Come on… you too know exactly what is missing! A Greek guy named Stavros, Niko, George, or any other Hellenic name, who is the owner, running around making sure the customers are getting their meals quickly and hot. (For our purposes, we’ll use the name Gus). Also there is his wife, usually named Maria, who is playing hostess, a daughter is taking cash or waitressing, and a son in the back is cooking. Yes, what is missing are Greeks.
When you walk into a Greek family owned restaurant, the first thing you see is Gus. He has a big smile surrounded by a bushy moustache, and he is wearing the traditional uniform of a diner owner – white shirt and black pants, shirt-sleeves rolled up (because he is actually working), and he gives you a bigggggg hello with a heavy-laced Greek accent. He asks you how the kids are… your business… how is your mother who is not feeling well. You know the small talk. To be a Greek-owned diner, it has to have pictures of the Parthenon and a koumboloi hanging somewhere. Oh yeah, Gus didn’t graduate from restaurant school… he was the dishwasher, then short-order cook, line-cook, chef, then bought the place.
You walk into any CFSE, and what do you get. Some kid in a non-fitting uniform asking what you want on your burrito. There is no… how are the kids? No… how is your mother feeling today? In fact, the kid couldn’t care less about you, your mother, or your dog. And there definitely are no photos of the Parthenon or a hanging koumboloi!
Back at the diner, Maria takes you to the booth and hands you a menu, which has everything from bagels to filet mignon. She too asks about your mother, then quickly looks to the waitress, who is her daughter, Eleni, and yells out, “Kaffe, rigora”. Coffee (Lacas Coffee of course), is set in front of you even before you open the menu. Eleni brings the coffee without any creamers or spoon – she knows that you drink your coffee black and don’t need them.
Meanwhile, our teenage kid at the CFSE, with the stupid tattoo of some Chinese character on his neck (the tattoo artist told him it says Peace, but probably means Loser), and a ring through his nose, is still waiting for you to choose – beef, pork or chicken for your burrito. You ask if you can have beef and chicken mixed and then suddenly the world stops. Air raid sirens go off. It’s as if you are North Korea and tried to shoot off a missile. No one knows what to do. Should they attack or impose more embargoes against you? The manager comes out. He’s wearing a nice shirt with the franchise logo on it, Dockers pants, and a headset microphone so he can talk to the employee, who is standing right next to him. He explains that they cannot mix the meat products. You ask why… he answers, it’s policy. Then you realize why. He’s not wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black pants, and then you read his name tag… it’s, oh my God, Byron. It’s not Stavro, Niko, George, or our man, Gus. He’s an automaton, can’t make a decision without corporate telling him what to do, but he has a degree from restaurant school!
At the diner, you ask Gus that instead of French fries that come with your burger, can you substitute it with a vegetable. He simply answers, “No problem, Mr. Xari. This place is like your “spiti”. Anything you want”. And I get the substitution without having any corporate special meetings being held, feasibility studies conducted, and lawyers advising about the liability probabilities as a result of the substitution.
At one of the other CFSEs, they have a “Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT on Sourdough”. Their menu says it’s all natural, antibiotic-free roasted turkey, Applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato & fresh avocado with reduced fat olive oil mayo. Oh shut-up! What they really give you is one slice each of turkey, bacon, tomato, avocado, and press it in the grill and charge $8.49! No fries, no beverage, no smart-mouthed waitress, no Gus yelling at the busboy to hurry up and clean the table… nothing. Just some snot-nosed kid punching little pictures on the cash register and with a big smile, telling you that the thing on your plate and the soup you just ordered cost you fifteen bucks. And they expect a tip in the tip-jar. The kid needs to work for Gus and learn about life!
At the Greek diner, Yiayia is in the kitchen making Pastichio. She doesn’t use “antibiotic-free” anything and no reduced fat olive oil mayo (do they get that from reduced fat olive oil trees?). She uses ingredients that she has been using for the past 70 years… together with a dash of love and a pinch of tenderness that goes into each batch. My total bill comes to $9.48 and that includes my burger and vegetable, Coleslaw, a real Jewish dill pickle, coffee, real forks and knives, a two-minute sit-down with Gus, friendly hellos and a few handshakes with other customers, and a nice smile from Eleni. And… as I’m leaving, Maria runs out and catches me before I walk out the door. She hands me a small paper bag and says, “Some chicken soup for your mother. On us. Tell her we hope she feels better”.
All those CFSEs have their place in our fast-paced world, but they don’t have what is important – Gus, Maria, Yiayia and the family. So next time you walk into a food establishment and you don’t see smiling Gus with his big bushy moustache or a koumboloi hanging somewhere, then turn right around and run for the hills. There’s got to be a Greek family owned diner-restaurant near-by. Go to it and enjoy. It what makes the world a little better place.
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