As a youth I recall hearing the reassuring aphorism that “all a Greek had to do to make money in a restaurant was stand by the cash register and smile.”
There was also the frequent question, “How did so many Greeks end up in that business?”
One of the most tenable explanations is that the early part of the 20th century brought an influx of young Greek immigrants into the coal fields and railroad camps of Utah and Colorado. They were conscripted by a padrone or labor boss, who signed them into bondage in return for providing them passage to and a job in the United States.
These young men lived in railroad cars and shanties. The cooking chores were rotated. Men who proved more skilled at their rudimentary cuisine probably decided that cooking was less hazardous than mining or laying track. The first Greek lunchroom was born.
My experience in restaurants came in the late 1940s. I had been married in 1945 and for the first few years had an erratic work record. A year in U.S. Steel South Works and another year working a triad of jobs that included a package liquor store, pressing clothes for a cleaner and delivering prescriptions for a pharmacist.
A good friend had just been discharged from service in the Air Force and we spoke of becoming partners in some business. Each of us had about $1,000 (my $1,000 comprising my wife’s dowry), which wasn’t enough for a coffee dealership or a jukebox franchise. We kept returning to restaurants.
One of the places we visited was a small lunchroom owned by an older Greek man. The place had 10 stools at the counter and four tables. A dingy weathered sign reading ART’S LUNCH hung over the door. Art was the lunchroom’s first owner, and none of the four successive owners had been motivated enough nor had the money to change the sign.
The lunchroom was located at 13th and Indiana in a shabby but bustling commercial area that contained a potato warehouse and an armature factory. It was in proximity to the busy railroad yards at 12th Street and truck traffic also flowed through the neighborhood.
The owner, who had spent almost 50 years in the business and wished to retire, adjusted his price to fit the cash we had available and we bought ART’S LUNCH.
The first few times we visited the lunchroom in early November, the stools and tables were full. Two waitresses worked the front, while a cook and a dishwasher handled the kitchen. Every time the cash register bell rang, it sounded to my partner and I like a Christmas carol. Before turning over the keys, the honest owner issued us a warning. “We’re busy now because the factories and railroad are jammed with holiday help,” his voice turned somber. “After Christmas, business will fall abruptly. Then you must take care in what you buy and in how you use leftovers.”
Anticipating a multitude of patrons, we overlooked the fact that the stove was a huge coal-burning behemoth that had to be loaded and stoked in the middle of the night so it would be ready for breakfast. The icebox was a three-tiered, six-compartment monster that looked as if it might have seen service in the Civil War.
The sinks were two great iron tubs that were the domain of an older black man named George who had served as a bugler in the Spanish-American War. He was wiry with alert eyes, strong arms, and shoulders stooped from years of bending over the tubs.
“George has served here since Art opened the lunchroom,” the owner had told us. “He sleeps in the storeroom back of the kitchen and gets up at four to put coal in the stove. All day long he washes dishes, cuts the meat, scrapes vegetables, scours pots and pans. He is worth three men in the kitchen.”
At the end of our first week, after all expenses were paid, there remained $300 profit for each of us, a huge sum in those days. My partner and I were elated that we’d have our down payment back in a few weeks.
The first intimation of trouble came right after the first of January. Except for a modest surge at lunch, the stools and tables remained empty. At week’s end, we threw away a considerable quantity of unused meat and produce.
The trickle of business continued through January and into February. A major problem was that we lacked knowledge and experience in how to reduce our purchases to match the dwindling number of customers. We also lacked the ability to utilize leftovers for soups and stews.
We let go of our cook and one waitress. After trimming our menu to meet my unexceptional skills as a chef, I retreated to the kitchen to handle the cooking.
In this time, coming to realize that the restaurant could not sustain two of us, my partner and I flipped a coin. I lost and became sole owner of ART’S LUNCH.
I geared myself for a final offensive against impending catastrophe. I kept the waitress, a sturdy Norwegian lady named Maude, and relied on George in the kitchen. He worked double shifts that began at 4 a.m., when he first stoked the coal-burning stove. For the following 16 hours he managed the kitchen. I survived only as long as I did because of his Herculean labors.
Predating McDonald’s and Burger King, I devised a meal called “Burger in a Basket,” which consisted of a burger, a few fries and a slice of pickle. To add an aesthetic flourish, I added a sprig of parsley. Our customers responded with enthusiasm, but burgers alone couldn’t pay our bills.
Desperate times required desperate measures. We had been approached in the past by a scurrilous meat salesman we knew only as Sam. His rock-bottom prices and the wretched appearance of his products suggested a slippery slope to food poisoning. (Once when we asked Sam why his chickens looked so dark, he reassured us they had been raised on a farm in Florida.) Our own somber assumption was that his creatures had died a natural death.
Frantic as I was, for the first time I bought a crate of turkeys from Sam at 15 cents a pound. I boiled those turkeys for hours and when customers complained about the smell I told them a gas main had broken.
I served the turkeys all that week, varying the menu slightly each day. Monday: Roast young tom turkey. Tuesday: turkey and noodles. Wednesday: hot turkey sandwich. Thursday: turkey croquettes. Friday: turkey hash. Saturday: chicken a la king.
Despite showing a profit that week for the first time in months, it could not stave off my collapse. In the early spring, after a futile effort to sell the lunchroom came to naught, I tore out fixtures and furnishings that I then sold to a restaurant supply house. The sum I received was just enough to cover the hospital bill my wife and I incurred with the birth of our first son.
In the decades that have passed since then, whenever I enter a restaurant owned by a Greek, I watch closely to see if the owner exhibits any of the anguish my own experience produced. They all seem untroubled while spending an uncommon amount of time at the cash register.
The forlorn conclusion I finally came to was that Greeks and restaurants belonged together. I was simply the wrong Greek.
Harry Mark Petrakis’ new book, Cavafy’s Stone and Other Village Tales, will be published by Wicker Park Press in November.