By the time John Kordonouris started working at his family's gyro shop on South Fifth Street, he'd already been in the restaurant biz for years, soaking up the pace at his mom's franchise place in North Carolina. It didn't matter that he was still a preteen, because he knew what he wanted to do. And today, at 21, he is fulfilling his destiny.
John now runs The Greek Gyros and Pastry Shop, often lovingly called #1 Gyros, housed in a blue and white building that sits across from the Orange Street Food Farm. Since 1977, one or another of Kordonouris's forebears has been teaching locals how to do gyros right. And it's no secret. The Greek Gyros and Pastry Shop bumps around the top five spots of highest rated Missoula restaurants on Yelp. If you stop by during a busy lunchtime, you'll see a line snaking out the door, along with the smell of garlicky, oregano-y gyro meat. People are devoted to this place.
"I would say that about 80 percent of our business comes from regulars," says John as he greets another customer by name. He says they sell 300-500 gyros a day, along with everything else on their menu.
So what inspires such loyalty? John would say it's twofold: the food (duh) and the family.
Let's start with the family. Back in 1977, John's great uncle, George Demonakos, opened up shop, along with John's great great grandfather Jim Petrou. There's still a photo of old Jim sitting on top of the range hood, keeping an eye on the restaurant. John gestures to the photo when he talks about his family.
"I never met him, but I have some sort of [memory], because my grandparents talk about him all the time." John says. "It's so weird with Greeks, there's so much family."
Indeed, it's a group effort. John's mom Demetra, who owns the place, helps out behind the counter, and his grandmother arrives at the shop every morning at 8 to prepare the delicious, not-too-sweet baklava. ("I know how to make it, but I don't make it as good as my Gramma," says John, bless him.)
And then there is the fact that if you hang around enough, you'll get adopted. Demetra invites regulars—or "usuals," as they've dubbed them—over to her house for barbecues ("they always come," she says with a smile) and John hangs out with them on the weekends. It seems to me that John knows the name of every person that walks through the door.
"For a customer, if you walk in and someone is like, hey you want the usual? It means they are actually caring for you. That's what I try to do. I love my customers," he says.
And then there's the food. The Greek Gyros and Pastry Shop uses all-beef gyro meat, mixed with olive oil, breadcrumbs, onions, garlic and spices. If you've ever wondered (as I have) how a 40-pound inverted cone of rotating ground meat doesn't just fall apart, well, there's a trick to that. The cone is frozen. The spinning grillers cook the outermost layer of the gyro meat at the perfect rate so the inside of the cone remains frozen and intact. John says they go through four to six cones on an average day.
The gyro meat is piled on a perfectly grilled pita with shredded lettuce, feta and tzatzikia garlicky, cucumber-yogurt sauce. You can also satisfy your Greek cravings with their falafel, spanakopita, hummus and baba ghanoush. On top of that, I wouldn't personally walk out the door without an order of their special friescrispy and drenched in greek seasoning, feta and tzatziki. It's like awesome Greek poutine.
John says that in the past 38 years the restaurant has been in operation, very little has changed. They've kept the recipes handed down from Uncle George, and the shop is still a hangout for the local Greek community. A core of about 10 Greek families live within a few blocks, most on one particular stretch of Chestnut Street. Most days you'll find an old-timer or two having lunch, or just hanging out, discussing the latest in animated Greek.
As for the other usuals, they're easy to find.
"I have to stop myself from eating here every week," says Matt McQuilkin during a recent lunch. "We're really lucky to have something like this in Missoula." Indeed.