By Tom Eblen
When I first wrote about Ilias Pappas and Lesme Romero several years ago, they had a lot in common. Both were 30-something immigrants, former chefs and new food entrepreneurs with a passion to succeed.
Since then, their businesses have grown well beyond expectations. Both recently opened new restaurants and have more projects in mind.
So I thought this would be a good time to check back with them and ask what advice they have for other food entrepreneurs. As it turns out, their advice has a lot in common, too.
Many people dream of opening a restaurant or food business. But it is a lot harder than it looks. Many open and most of them close, despite their owners’ passion and hard work. How have these guys succeeded when so many others have failed?
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First, a little about them.
Pappas, 35, came to Lexington from Lamia, Greece, to attend college. After transferring to Florida International University, he worked in several Miami restaurants. His aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, lived in Lexington, and they made and sold Greek food on the side.
When his uncle was killed in a car wreck in 2011, Pappas moved back to Lexington to help his aunt. The next year, he started the Athenian Grill food cart, serving homemade Greek specialties at local brewpubs and Thursday Night Live.
Pappas was part of Lexington’s first wave of food trucks. I wrote about him in May 2013, when he became one of the first to transition his cart into a sit-down restaurant. He opened Athenian Grill in what was originally a two-car garage at 313 South Ashland Ave., and it has flourished.
On May 13, Pappas added a much larger Athenian Grill restaurant at 115 North Locust Hill Drive. He bought La Petite Creperie to open kiosks at two new Kroger stores on Euclid Avenue and, this week, in Versailles.
He continues to do a lot of catering, as well as an occasional food truck gig for the brewpubs that helped him get started. He now has about 30 employees, most of them full-time.
In addition, Pappas has agreed to open a 600-square-foot Greek rotisserie food stand late next year in the Summit shopping center under construction at Nicholasville Road and Man O’ War Boulevard. And he said he has been approached by franchisers interested in taking his concepts to other cities in the region.
Like Pappas, Romero and his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, started their business in a former garage.
Both had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers. They became friends at college in Cleveland and worked in Italian restaurants there. Gonzales eventually became an industrial engineer in Lexington, while Romero worked in finance in Florida.
Through their shared love of fresh pasta, they saw a business opportunity. They started Lexington Pasta in a small garage at 227 North Limestone in 2009, selling fresh pasta there, at the Lexington Farmers’ Market, in markets and restaurants.
In addition to retail sales, they developed a regional wholesale pasta business and outgrew the garage. So they leased an 8,000-square-food building at 962 Delaware Ave. in 2013 and renovated it into a production kitchen with room for growth.
The low profit margins of wholesale pasta led them to decide to create a restaurant concept. Three weeks ago, Romero, who now manages the business, opened Pasta Garage in the front of the building.
The fast-casual concept serves made-to-order pasta bowls for lunch six days a week. Business has been so good, he already is looking to expand the dining room and add evening and Sunday hours.
Future plans call for Pasta Garages in the Hamburg and Beaumont areas, as well as behind the original Limestone garage, which they plan to convert into an Italian market later this year. They also have been approached by regional franchisers. Lexington Pasta now has five employees.
Pappas and Romero say several things contributed to their success:
Their food concepts were new to Lexington, and their timing was right. They started small and grew in phases by providing high-quality food with fresh ingredients and building relationships with business partners, customers and peers.
Both businesses developed a close partnership with Alt32, a Lexington architecture and design firm that created their restaurant interiors.
Romero and Pappas have become friends and advisers to each other. They also are part of a network of local food entrepreneurs who share ideas and learn from one another.
Both men say they are their own worst critics. They listen to customers and are constantly looking for ways to improve. They value customer relationships more than short-term sales. Those relationships contributed to successful online fundraising drives to help them raise expansion capital.
“Every customer needs to understand you are there for them,” Pappas said, adding that the same goes for employees. “I want to hire people who know that if this business does well, they will do well.”
Both Romero and Pappas work constantly, but they know they can’t do it forever. That is why they hire good people and trust them.
Pappas, who married June 20, said delegating responsibility isn’t just about work-life balance; it is about being smarter in business. “You should not be making important decisions at 1 a.
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m. when you’re exhausted and beat-up,” he said.
Romero and Pappas said their work is more about self-fulfillment than money. But successful food entrepreneurs must love both food and business — one or the other isn’t enough. And they must stay focused on achieving their vision.
“You will have your ups and downs,” Romero said. “Just make sure you work for what you believe in.”