Greeks Bring Innovation to Food Industry at 100th National Restaurant Association Show

Second-generation managers Dimitris Kailis and Sam Giannopoulos present Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery's large assortment of cakes and sweets at the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. (Photo by TNH/Anthe Mitrakos)

Chicago – It’s no secret, Greeks love food. And in America, they’ve earned quite the reputation for bringing quality, quantity, efficiency and innovation to the restaurant world – an industry with some $900 billion in projected sales in 2019, according a report by the National Restaurant Association.

Crossing the Atlantic in search of opportunity at the turn of the twentieth century Greek immigrants were opening their own small businesses, selling baked goods, sweets and produce, and later and most notably, feeding America in their famous round-the-clock diners.

In an ever-evolving, expanding industry that boasts over one million foodservice spots across the nation, the new generation Greeks are not only using innovation to boost productivity and sales, but are also the masterminds behind some of today’s hottest food industry trends.

“I think technology is the smartest investment one can make right now” said Peter Kellis, founder and CEO of Tray, provider of a cloud-based point of sale (POS) system and self-service kiosks serving restaurants, amusement parks and entertainment centers across North America.

Founder and CEO of Tray, Peter Kellis, presents his company’s app, POS and self-service kiosks designed to bring efficiency and increase sales in the expanding food service industry. (Photo by TNH/Anthe Mitrakos)

For Kellis, an MIT graduate who worked for Google and Publicis Groupe before launching his own company, innovation is a personal matter. “I never liked waiting in line,” he said. With a background in computer science, Kellis used his experience as a frustrated customer of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, to create an app and smart systems aimed at increasing revenue and efficiency.

“It is important to make things more automated and efficient because minimum wages are increasing, and if restaurants have to pay the same employees more, they have to find a way to make more money, and the only way to do that is efficiency,” Kellis said.

Speaking of efficiency, the gyros industry is moving fast to meet the increasing demand for Mediterranean food by changing the way gyros are prepared. Over at Olympia Foods, the Papantoniou family is making it possible for some of the food industry’s smaller and larger venues to serve this Greek-American staple.

Using laser and robotic technology to carve servings of chargrilled meat off 1,500-lb gyros cones in a controlled environment, a fairly new preparation method, the company delivers pre-cooked, pre-cut frozen packages around the country.

“Before, if you didn’t have the volume as a restaurant to get through a cone, you couldn’t have gyros on the menu. Now, small users like family restaurants can add a Greek omelet or salad to their menu,” said Andrea Coutretsis, National Sales Manager at Olympia Foods. “By the same token, huge volume users like stadiums that could not keep up with cones, can now feed 60,000 people in half an hour,” she said.

Olympia Foods serves up its gyros and pita at the 100th National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.(Photo by TNH/Anthe Mitrakos)

And when it comes to food, innovation in flavor cannot be overlooked, constituting yet another aspect of business the younger generation is taking the lead on.

“The second generation is developing the new products,” said Olympia Foods Co-Founder and CEO Andreas Papantoniou, pointing out their latest product addition, the Al Pastor, a hand-stacked gyro with Mexican flavors.

Over in the sweets department, family-owned and operated Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery is expanding its extensive line of sweets and cakes to cater to the taste buds of its growing clientele.

For President and CEO Tom Kailis, who has been in the business for some 20 years, one of his greatest challenges is finding and bringing aboard people with a strong work ethic, he said, while for his son Dimitri, it’s more about blending fresh ideas and new technology into their recipe for success.

“The most challenging part of this business is implementing technology into an old style business that’s been brought up by someone that was not around technology,” Kailis Jr. said.

“For so many decades, things looked the same, the cakes that we’ve come out with in recent months really reflect change,” said Sam Giannopoulos, a second generation manager at Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery. “We’ve moved from a more traditional outlook to a more modern outlook, and when you add in technology, we are able to head into tomorrow with a different view, breaking away from something traditional,” Giannopoulos said.

While it goes without saying that working in a family-run business has both its advantages and its challenges, there is no doubt that the older and newer generations can combine their experiences and knowledge to excel.

Founder and CEO of Tray, Peter Kellis, presents his company’s app, POS and self-service kiosks designed to bring efficiency and increase sales in the expanding food service industry. (Photo by TNH/Anthe Mitrakos)

“My son, my nephew, and my niece are very active in the business and they are pretty much taking over,” said Papantoniou, who founded his gyros company with his brother in the early 1970s.

Kailis Sr. said he hopes the younger generation will remain in the family business, build off the previous generation’s hard work, and expand on it. “I hope they can do their own business and not work for anybody else,” he said. “We are in America, and that’s what we came here for, to improve our lives.”

Celebrating 100 years, the National Restaurant Association Show features food industry equipment, ingredients, supplies, food and beverage technology, and more. Held at McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center, the three-day event welcomed thousands of companies and attendees from all over the world.