Amid rising rates of unemployment, real estate woes and tough economic times – a phrase so often used in discussion about this recession that it has almost become a cliché – a Greek-born Atlanta resident is welcome evidence of the indefatigable spirit of the American Dream.
In 1963, the parents of John Gianoulidis, along with their two other sons, immigrated to America from a small suburb of Athens, Greece to escape military rule.
“My mother was able to get refugee visas. She came home and told my dad, ‘We’re going to America,” John says.
John’s mother, whose family was from southern Russia, had already suffered the torment of witnessing her family’s persecution by dictators, and his great grandparents, residents of what was then Constantinople, were among the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Ottoman Empire’s violent campaign against the Greek population. They died in a death march.
“Good portions of both sides of my family have been killed by fascists or communists,” John says.
His parents wanted a change, and that change was America, he says. “My parents basically saw a chance to do something for their family and jumped at it.”
John’s parents are now deceased – his mother died three years ago, a year and a half after the death of her husband – but when they came to America, they talked to their sons about the “American Dream.” The definition has undergone a change over the last several years to stand for fame and riches, but to a Greek couple coming to America in 1963, it meant something much different.
“My parents defined it as the whole idea of there being opportunity when there wasn’t in Greece,” John says. “For my father and my mother – and they especially said this – here in America, we work and we’re able to get something from our efforts. It’s like being a farmer. You plant and you work and you get something. It wasn’t, ‘We’re going to sit on our asses and be handed houses and money.’ It was the idea of the work ethic.”
John, 45, has worked hard since he was young, most recently as a real estate agent. But he decided last year, as the market continued to tank and he saw struggling agents resorting to questionable practices, to get out of the business and start something of his own.
“The Greek” is that something, a gyros, pizza, and kabob restaurant located in downtown Atlanta’s revitalized Sweet Auburn Curb Market.
John is no stranger to the restaurant business. When his family came to the US, they arrived in Boston, Mass. and lived in Cambridge before moving to Southbridge to work in factories. John was born there in 1965, and in 1970, the Gianoulidis family moved to Moosup, Conn. and opened a little pizza place called Johnny’s Pizza, named after John and his father.
“It was tiny,” says John. “It was actually an old railroad storage building and had about six tables, a soda machine in the corner and a juke box for music.”
As a child, John did his homework at the corner table and took naps on bags of flour in the back. In winter, they all sat by the pizza oven. “It was very cozy,” he says.
But even as the youngest son, John wasn’t allowed to sit idle. His job at Johnny’s Pizza?
“I was chief pan scrubber.”
After ten years, his parents sold Johnny’s Pizza and moved to Atlanta, Ga. to help his two older brothers open their pizzeria – Christos’ Pizza – in nearby Marietta. When John’s parents retired, they gave their share of the restaurant to John’s two older brothers, and John continued to work there until he went to college. He had a number of jobs before entering into real estate and even made several attempts to forge business partnerships during his stint as an agent. He is currently part owner of an Atlanta tattoo studio, Memorial Tattoo.
Entrepreneurial by nature, he has always wanted to have a little place of his own. “I don’t like working for other people, don’t like having a boss,” he says.
When he realized he had enough money saved to rent a small place, he saw an opportunity. His idea: open a restaurant serving traditional Greek gyros and kabobs. He admits, however, that he was worried about taking a chance in such unsteady times.
“It was either do it or sit and watch other people take chances. You have to take a chance. I can’t allow that the economy is bad to dictate all of my actions.”
Asked what his parents might say about The Greek were they alive today, John says, “They would be quite happy that I’m working for myself. I’m always doing something. I was that guy in the family, the entrepreneur kind of guy. They would be proud of me.”
Would they say he was living the American Dream?
“It wasn’t a qualifier like that,” he says. “You don’t aspire to something. You just are. They would say ‘He’s working hard. He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.'”