Charles Bililies Talks to TNH about Souvla

Charles Bililies, Founder and CEO of Souvla. Photo by Kassie Borreson

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Greek-American Charles Bililies, founder and CEO of Souvla with locations in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, NoPa, and Mission neighborhoods, took time out of his busy schedule to talk to The National Herald about his work and Greek heritage.

Originally from Boston, Mr. Bililies noted that his father, Drew Bililies, is an avid reader of TNH, “When I told my dad [about the interview], he lit up, we’ve been fortunate to get a lot of great press over the years and a lot of national stuff, a couple of pieces ran in some Greek publications, but this is the big one for him, he’s been an avid National Herald reader for as long as I can remember.”

Of his Greek heritage, he said, “Mom, Maria Bililies, maiden name Leotsakos, came to the U.S. in the mid 70’s from Chalandri, Athens, where she grew up, her dad was from Paros, and her mom was from Athens. My father’s grandparents, my great-grandparents came to the United States from the western Peloponnese, Mani, so I am kind of not exactly first generation, not exactly second generation Greek-American.

A view of charming interior at Souvla in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

“Greek on both sides of course, also Souvla as a brand, as a restaurant, and experience, is a direct reflection of my cultural upbringing and my relationship with my Greek heritage as a child of the 80s from a generational standpoint, the child of an immigrant mother who wanted us to be normal American kids and we grew up with a lot of the customs and traditions of a traditional Greek family, however we are in the States and my parents wanted us to be normal American kids and not have that sort of definitive Greek, über-sort of Greekness, so we grew up in the church and all that but we also grew up speaking Greek at home, even 35 years later my Greek is sort of plus minus, I sound more fluent than I actually am, but then it was very important to me in creating Souvla that it be for everyone.

“Ninety-nine percent of our clientele is not Greek, so I wanted people to come in and feel comfortable knowing that it’s Greek, but not to feel that they didn’t know how to pronounce something or didn’t know what a certain item was, which is why Souvla presents the way that it does. We have the country’s only all-Greek beverage list all the way down to the sparkling water, the only restaurant in the U.S. to my knowledge that can lay claim to that, but we also have our own line of Greek wines which are made in partnership with three wineries in Greece, but the way that they’re labeled and the way that they’re presented on the menu, it says Greek White, Greek Red, Greek Rosé. We wanted people to be able to walk up and order something and not feel uncomfortable about trying to pronounce Agiorgitiko, or Xinomavro.

Souvla’s NoPa location patio. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

“The most foreign word on our menu is probably avgolemono and now we sell tens of thousands of bottles of this wine every year out of three restaurants and just from the wine side, so many people either have always had a negative connotation of Greek wine in the fact that they just equate it with retsina which we actually do carry in a more modern style of retsina here, not under the Souvla label, but then for a lot of people this is the first time they’re being exposed to Greek wine, so they’re drinking the Souvla rosé on the patio and it’s like ‘oh wow, I didn’t know the Greeks made wine, this is delicious.’”

Bililies noted that “Souvla’s three locations are within the city of San Francisco and they’re all very, very neighborhood-based, in three pretty distinctive neighborhoods. The original opened almost 4 years ago in Hayes Valley which is really central in the city, it’s very close to City Hall, it’s very close to the performing arts centers, it’s developed into this really cool, little neighborhood in the past ten years or so. That was the original Souvla, it’s very small, about 1,000 square feet, about 42 seats, it’s still the busiest and the most popular of our three restaurants, it’s like ‘the little restaurant that could,’ and now averages serving about 700 people a day and over 1,000 people on a busy Saturday or Sunday.”

Super fries with pork at Souvla. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

When asked if the family was always in the restaurant business, Bililies said, “It almost skipped a generation, so I grew up being fortunate enough to dine out and food, I think, like most Greek families, food was certainly very central to daily life, and I spent a lot of time at restaurants. Believe it or not, my first words as an infant was not mom or dad or any of that stuff, it was, actually sitting at a table ordering lunch, the waitress walked up and I looked over and I ordered, obviously in a more childish way, I said the words ‘hamburger, french fries, and lemon.’”

He continued, “My grandfather on my father’s side was in the restaurant business in the Boston area and ran his own restaurants for many years and then converted over to teaching the mentally challenged how to get a job in food service, so he worked for Brockton High School and ran this vocational educational program, that taught the training, and what’s interesting is that my father took that and for the past 35 years he has run a company that provides recreation programs for the mentally and physically handicapped. So he was never directly involved in operating restaurants but obviously was inspired by his father’s work.

A few favorites from the menu at Souvla. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

“Then my other grandfather on my mother’s side who came to the U.S. from Greece obviously with my mother, was one of those guys that was just this incredible home cook, the type of person who could obviously make any of the traditional dishes with his eyes closed but also the type that came to the U.S. and never experienced Chinese food before. There was a Chinese food restaurant down the street and he would go and order a dish and take it home and figure out how to make it himself and do a better job and this was a cuisine that was totally foreign to him, so there’s always been these little touch points, these little sort of influences that kind of form my genetic make-up. Both my parents are entrepreneurs and small business owners and so I kind of say that it’s sort of jumped hereditary and that I ended up doing my own thing in the food space and it manifested itself slightly differently than a lot of Greeks who for decades and decades in the U.S. have run restaurants and diners and the kids come up in the restaurants bussing tables and being a short order cook and then they go into that line but my pathway was slightly different.”

“With Souvla, all of my background has been in food, I have a culinary background and hospitality management background. I went to Johnson & Wales and got a culinary degree and then also went to Cornell University and got a degree in hotel/restaurant management, so most of my professional career has been in kitchens and then segued into dining room management and then more into the business side. Then in the creation of Souvla I wanted to do something that was a little bit more modern and approachable and certainly inspired by some of these traditions and products and ingredients and recipes but also with a little bit more of a forward-thinking, California mindset, which is why you see some more traditional items on our menu like our avgolemono soup which is incredibly delicious and very traditional and for me was important to have on the menu because I grew up eating it and it was always my true comfort food. Our pork sandwich has all the hallmark traditional Greek ingredients with the pork and the yogurt and the feta cheese and the tomatoes and the cucumbers, but then we also take some liberties here and there when you see our chicken salad which has orange and fennel but then also has traditional sort of ingredients, it’s a blend of modern, fresh kind of California product with a lot of inspiration and some true Greek ingredients as well.”

Souvla features a Greek street sign on the wall. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

Bililies said, “We’re sourcing our lamb from farms that are an hour away from us here in California and we work exclusively with this great lamb producer, all of our produce is pretty local and mostly organic and then on the flip side we’re bringing in Greek sodas and iced tea and mizithra and obviously all of our incredible wines that we imported from Greece. So it’s either very local or very far away from us in Greece.”

“So now, Souvla’s about to turn four and we’ve got 3 locations and we’re about to announce next week our fourth San Francisco location and we’ve got about 125 employees and I’m really quite proud to say, we’ve kind of become part of the fabric of San Francisco and for, I think, so many people, and obviously we don’t have as large of a Greek-American population here in San Francisco that other cities do. For us, now, Souvla has become the new Greek. And we’re so fortunate to have so many people that dine with us with such frequency, the way that the menu is structured and the quality and the freshness and the both hearty and healthfulness of the menu it’s good that you want to and can eat multiple times a week. We’ve had guests dining with us for years that come three, four, five days a week. The restaurant is open 7 days a week from 11 AM to 10 PM and we serve all the way through, and in addition to being able to dine in, you can also take anything to go and we also do a lot of delivery as well. About 25 percent of the business is now delivery, you can order via Caviar which is the exclusive delivery partner of Souvla and you can have Souvla delivered anywhere in San Francisco.”

Charles Bililies, Founder and CEO of Souvla. Photo by Kassie Borreson

When asked about plans to expand outside of San Francisco, Bililies said, “We’re certainly starting to look. We’re very thoughtful in our approach to growth, we want to continue to be on these iconic streets in these great cities and for us it’s still a little bit of a let’s go one at a time but we’re starting to look at opportunities in New York and in Los Angeles. I have an affinity for those two great cities and the product would translate very well in either place and we actually did a delivery pop up in New York in October of last year that was a huge, huge success. There was a two day delivery pop up, it sold out in the first 15 minutes.”

He added, “What we’re doing is truly unique and people really, really love it, we’re super fortunate and even though the menu is very, very concise and doesn’t change, it’s one of those things where people find whatever that thing is that they like whether it’s a soup or a salad or a sandwich and for lack of a better adjective, they become addicted to it, and then they find themselves craving our frozen Greek yogurt, and they can’t wait to come in, so that’s also really good.”

“We’ve always been of the mindset of the importance of doing one thing and doing it really, really well,” Bililies said.

The iconic coffee cups featuring the Greek key stacked up at Souvla in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

He married Jen Pelka last May, and noted that his wife is also in the business and noted that he is “so fortunate to have that partner not only in life but also that we both kind of advise each other in our own separate businesses, she runs San Francisco’s premier restaurant PR firm, it’s called Magnum PR, so they represent about 25 of the best restaurants and wineries here in San Francisco and then she also last January opened a champagne bar called The Riddler, the country’s only all-female-owned champagne bar, so not Greek, but we’ve been together now for six years, she is very much in tune with and passionate about the culture, we actually got engaged in Santorini at sunset the kind of quintessential engagement there, and we traveled all throughout Greece together.”

When asked if he gets to visit the homeland often, he said, “My goal is I want to be going once a year, whether that’s just she [my wife] and I, and I’d like to start bringing more of my team there so they can truly see the genesis and inspiration for all that we do at Souvla. We also have very close partnerships with three wineries there so I’ve known George Skouras at Domain Skouras for 6 years now, we work closely together with these wine projects and we go out to see him at the winery, and now we work with Domain Alexakis in Crete who makes our white wine for us, and also Kyr-Yanni up in the northern part of Greece with Stelios Boutaris who makes our sparkling rosé for us.”

An interior view of Souvla’s original NoPa location. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

“It was also very important to us,” Bililies pointed out, “when I was curating the original Souvla wine list which is before we took these items to private label, I wanted to showcase approachable, affordable, food-friendly wines but that also featured native varietals to Greece what’s interesting when you’re in Greece, so many of these producers are also producing the more sort of conventional varietals and a lot of that ends up being what is consumed in Greece, for whatever reason, Greeks want to drink Cabernet, Chardonnay, and being basically just south of wine country here in San Francisco, we’ve got all the Cabernet and all the Chardonnay we could ever want, let’s drink some cool or unusual varietals. Obviously, the way that Greece’s wine regions are set up the varietals in the Peloponnese are different than the varietals found on Crete are different than the varietals found in Naoussa so we can highlight those native varietals.

“We’re bringing in 60,000 bottles of our Souvla wine for this year alone which will sell out,” he noted.

Of his last name, he said, “Bililies doesn’t sound overly Greek, typically how it’s pronounced, so I kind of fly under the radar and people say, ‘wait a minute you’re Greek.’ I have a little family still in Glyfada, Voulgiagmeni on my mother’s side. Any other Bililies I know I’m related to, but there’s not a tremendous amount of us here. It’s not a particularly common Greek name.”

Souvla serves its delicious frozen Greek yogurt in the iconic coffee cup featuring the Greek key. Photo: Courtesy of Souvla

Of Souvla’s success, Bililies said, “We’re coming off a third really incredible year of business and we have just a really phenomenal team of men and women that operate our restaurants, 125 employees, there’s five of us on the leadership team that oversee operations of all the restaurants and we’ve been super fortunate to be able to do things like that delivery pop up in New York and obviously had the honor to serve the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, which was really incredible, and just the fact that we’re able to touch so many people on a daily basis and really be a part of their every day lives, we serve literally thousands of people every day between the three restaurants, and our products are what people are super excited about.

“Whenever I’m out and about, Souvla is about Souvla, the brand, it’s not about me, I’m not a celebrity chef, but when I meet people and they ask what I do and I say I have this restaurant, Souvla, they say ‘Oh, I love Souvla,’ it’s stuff like that that continues to inspire and motivate me and really inspire and motivate our team, and the same thing happens to our chef Tony Cervone whose also my partner in the business, or our operations manager, they get the same response, so there’s this tremendous amount of pride that we all have of being able to be a part of this and the fact that four years ago it was just a little tiny restaurant with just 12 people on the staff and was a pretty bootstrap project, the product was inherently familiar but also entirely new. People knew what a gyro or a souvlaki was, but this wasn’t exactly that, also just with the nature of our format, was pioneering a new sort of style of dining, fast-fine, where you order at the counter, there’s no server that comes to the table [to take your order], you’re able to have wine served in stemware, the food is brought to your table, it’s in this beautiful enamel bowl and plates, not on disposable whatever, it’s also a place where you can go grab something during the day and go back to the office or have lunch with friends and have a glass of rosé on the back patio of our Divisadero location, and you can come back at night and have a glass of wine, people bring dates all the time, it’s not just ‘fast casual,’ it’s more than that.”

More information about Souvla is available online at: www.souvlasf.com.