George Markou sat at the table nearest the kitchen of his small Greek restaurant across from the University of Arizona’s Main Gate.
It was midafternoon on the Wednesday before finals week and there were only a few customers in the dining room. He likes to refer to this time as the lull, the two or three hours between the lunchtime rush and the steady stream of dinnertime diners.
But, frankly, he hasn’t quite figured out the rhythms of Pelio Grill Greek Taverna & Catering, the restaurant he opened nearly two months ago on the corner of University Boulevard and Park Avenue.
He used to be able to set his watch by the clientele he had built over a decade at The Fat Greek, where he dished up a casual menu of gyros and salads in that very same spot.
Markou is looking to 2014 as a year of growth.
He sat out most of 2013 and half of July 2012 after a burst pipe closed The Fat Greek, which also forced him to close the Greek Taverna, his three-year-old restaurant at 3225 N. Swan Road.
The Greek Taverna was one of several Tucson restaurants that closed last year for various reasons. The restaurant business is tough, especially in Tucson where owners invest their all in an increasingly competitive market that demands perseverance and luck and tough decisions. The margin for error is small.
Two years ago, Markou and his wife, Traci, were doing fine. The Fat Greek had an established spot just a brisk walk from UA’s Old Main. The business also helped support their second restaurant. And Traci ran their 2ƒ-acre hobby farm at Tanque Verde and Houghton roads, where they grew tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and fresh herbs for their restaurants and raised chickens, a cow and goats.
That all changed in July 2012. A toilet in the restaurant upstairs sprung a hose late one night, which spewed a steady stream of water down to Markou’s restaurant. A security guard didn’t notice the water leaking out Markou’s doors until 2 a.m.; it had been running at least five hours by then, said Jane McCollum, general manager of the Marshall Foundation and Markou’s landlord. The nonprofit owns Main Gate Square, which includes more than 20 restaurants within a couple blocks.
Markou remembers surveying the damage: The walls were a sopping mess. The floors had buckled beneath the saturation. The wiring and plumbing would have to be replaced.
Thus began the back-and-forth tug-of-war with the insurance companies, figuring out who would pay for what and just what was covered. In the middle of all of it, one of the insurance companies was sold, which sent him almost back to square one.
As the negotiations with the insurance companies continued, Traci asked her husband if perhaps he might consider just taking the insurance payout and starting fresh. The couple have three young boys.
“I said to him, we know we are going to get reimbursed by our insurance at some point. I was like, are you sure you don’t want to just stop, take the money, get out of the lease and get a normal job?” she asked.
George Markou told her he couldn’t imagine his life outside the adrenaline rush of running a restaurant.
“After 10, 13 years being your own boss, it would be hard for me. What kind of job?” the 44-year-old said. “Before this I audited hospitals on behalf of insurance companies. I didn’t want to get back into a cubicle. Whatever investment I put here I can always get back.”
As 2013 dawned, they made the tough decision to close the Greek Taverna. Without revenue from The Fat Greek, it was too hard to keep the second restaurant afloat.
The couple also stopped raising goats at their farm, realizing that with the expense of feed, it was more cost-effective to buy goat meat than to raise their own animals.
The setbacks continued. Every projected reopening date was pushed back. As he waited, George Markou drew up plans to modernize his restaurant, give it new relevance in a vibrant dining district that’s constantly evolving to keep up with its young clientele. He envisioned a complete remake from a new name to a new look inside and out. And when the insurance finally settled late last summer for $300,000 — a little short of the $350,000 Markou was asking — he set those plans in motion.
Contractors came in and redid the plumbing and electrical. He said he sank $250,000 all told into the project, which included expanding the capacity of the 1,200-square-foot dining room by refiguring the space. Pelio Grill can now seat 45 inside and 10 on tables outside; The Fat Greek’s dining room could seat only 36. And he added a sliding glass window that opens up onto the UA’s Main Gate.
“Even my kitchen is double the size and I’ve got more equipment,” he said earlier this month, showing off a gadget imported from Greece that makes it easier to create kabobs. “Now the way that it’s set up, in half an hour if I have a 16-seat reservation, I can actually split the room and use half of it for large parties.”
“Before we were so limited. Before it was counter service and baskets. Now we have servers and plates,” he added.
Markou expanded the menu to include entrees at dinnertime instead of just serving from the lunch menu as he had before. Pelio Grill’s menu draws from his native Greece, specifically the mountainous region of Pelion in central Greece. There’s braised lamb shank cooked in a spiced tomato sauce with Greek herbs that, at $13, is the most expensive entree on the menu. Spanakopita, the savory, rich spinach and feta cheese pastry, anchors one plate. Calamari, deep-fried whole, and pork chops rubbed with Greek herbs and spices before being cooked on charcoal are also among the entrees. Dinners come with a Greek side salad, veggies, potatoes and pita bread.
Then there’s Markou’s masterpiece, the Pelio Ultimate Sampler, which plucks from all parts of the menu: charbroiled meats and veggies with sides of gyro, chicken and pork souvlaki, and bifteki, a Greek-style seasoned ground beef that’s cooked on charcoal.
Markou opened Pelio Grill the first week of November, and the response was immediately encouraging. “I can’t believe how busy it has been with no advertising. It’s been great response,” he said.
In some ways, he reflects now, being closed was likely a godsend. He missed out on the prolonged modern-streetcar construction that tangled University Boulevard for months after work began in spring 2012. Restaurants along the route stretching from downtown to the UA struggled, and at least one, Enoteca Pizzeria and Wine Bar at 58 W. Congress St., blamed the streetcar construction when the owners closed in June.
Landlord McCollum said she is glad to see Markou back on the corner.
“He has been very patient, and, as passionate as he is, it amazes me that he didn’t go crazy,” she said. “His food is good. ... He’s a character in the biggest way I know. When he is there, it’s an amazing experience. He’s funny, he’s passionate, he’s devoted and really wants people to have a good experience.”
“Call it a challenge that you know I’m going to win,” Markou said of their 15-month journey. “It’s not always about the money. Yeah, you take the money and run, and the money will run out and then what?”