What is it about Greeks and restaurants? I raise the subject using the ancient Socratic method. That’s because my cousin, Ted Saffos, took the plunge and never looked back.
A few years ago, several years past Medicare eligibility age, he opened a brew pub featuring small-batch craft beers. From scratch. In what used to be part of a greasy Esso gas station in the close-knit town of Colonial Beach, Va., 65 miles downstream from Washington, DC.
After carefully surveying the market to launch his dream venture, Ted went with a conservative town he knew well. But, like Sisyphus’ epic struggle, it was uphill all the way in a place where Ted and wife Mitzi waged a vigorous, years-long legal battle to get the zoning laws changed so they could move forward with their plan.
Obviously, the pair knew what they were doing, and Mitzi’s deep familial roots in Colonial Beach played a pivotal role in its success. The start of a long honeymoon on the Potomac.
Really, Ted didn’t have anything to prove. He breezed through high school, earning top marks; even his occasional mischief-making with close pal Jonathan Banks, who went on to act in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, didn’t deter him from staying grounded.
Later, while I was trying to figure out long division, Ted, true to his Aegean roots, kept riding the wave, studying electrical engineering (differential equations, anyone?) in college before eventually landing a good-paying job with the navy. You would have assumed after logging a stellar career doing whatever it is engineers do, he would have packed it all in and retired to a quieter life at their condo on the Delaware coast.
Here’s a mini Ted Talk:
“Mitzi was really instrumental in starting the brewery,” he declared, in typical, self-effacing fashion. She’s the curator in the (town) museum. She is more connected than anybody here. At the old Esso station, we’re in two of the garage bays. We actually had to take the car lift out. Now, were so overworked. She says it’s all my fault,” he added with a hearty laugh.
He continued: “Our customers give us everything. They brought a fire pit and propane. And two awnings. They drop chairs off. They say, `we can drive six more miles to the landfill or drop them off at the brewery.’”
While Mitzi is his life partner, his first muse, the man who Ted admires most, was his father, Nicholas. Ted’s father and my dad, along with two uncles, owned a fistful of restaurants in the nation’s capital. At their weekly meetings, the agenda would include locking into heated debates. Accusations were hurled. Maybe shoes too. Luckily, once the Seagram’s 7 took hold, they were upright again, merrily shooting pool and listening to Nana Mouskouri or Johnny Cash.
“My dad’s favorite job was bartending,” Ted recalled, his voice growing softer, his gaze more pensive. “We have a picture of him in his bartending apron.”
But if you’re serious about starting a business, it helps if you bring in family members. And that’s what Ted and Mitzi did.
Their two sons, Chris and Nick are like cruise ship durable anchors, and always at the ready to attend to the tiniest detail.
“I can sum up everything by making one point,” declared Nick, a former social worker. “In the parlor one night, the lights went out. I looked at my dad, who was an electrical engineer for 40 some years, and said, “Pop, can you help me?” He looked at me and said, “Nick, I’m retired.”
Chris’s turn: “In the beginning, there were big personality conflicts. We had to be clear about setting boundaries. There’s not a lot of money in this. My parents are basically paying the employees. But Mom and Dad do all the work.”
Mitzi, Ted’s wife of more than 40 years, weighed in: I work my a-- off every second of every day,” she rhapsodized, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “The good thing about it is we have made so many friends. It’s like … a community center.”
In March, with the business humming, the world went into topsy-turvy mode. An uninvited stranger, a virus, came knocking. But the challenge has brought the family even closer together; they refuse to dwell on it. They’re poised to sail calmer waters.
Through it all, Ted remains undaunted. At its core, he said, business is simply nothing more than relationship building. “When you have that with your customers, they come back. It’s a really delicate balance.”
With expressive Greek eyes fixed on his father, Nick poured one more memory. “When my dad asked me to help him at the brewery, I had one question: Is this beer free? `We’ll talk about it,’” he answered.