When Tim Karagiannis wants to illustrate his family's fierce work ethic, he talks about his first day on the job. He was nine years old.
"My father took me into the kitchen at the restaurant on Natural Bridge and asked me if I could reach the bottom of the sink," Karagiannis recalls. "I was so proud of how tall I was, so I said, 'Yes, Dad, look!' He threw me an apron and said, 'Great. Now you're a dishwasher.'"
Considering the hardships his family endured to get to that point, it's no surprise that Kargiannis was expected to work at an early age. Hailing from a mountain village on the Albanian-Greek border so tiny it doesn't even register on Google Earth, the Karagiannis family ended up in St. Louis after a decade as refugees, ultimately becoming a vital part of the city's food scene with their restaurants, Spiro's (multiple locations including 1054 North Woods Mill Road, Chesterfield; 314-878-4449).
Karagiannis says that his grandfather, Constantine, became public enemy number one following World War II. As an ethnic Greek living in what had become Albania, he found himself at odds with the communists trying to take power. He fled his village, taking with him an Albanian governess wanted by the Greek government for war crimes. He turned her over in exchange for refuge.
But the conditions he and his family found in Greece were less than welcoming. For 10 years, they lived in a barracks with a single stove, an outdoor latrine and a shared mattress for the children.
"To make money, they would take grilled corn or sausages made from scraps they found from the butcher shop and go on the street corner with a makeshift grill to sell it," Karagiannis says. "My grandfather wanted something better, and eventually he was able to make it over to America and make enough money as a waiter to bring the entire family over."
Greek immigrants often found employment in the restaurant industry once they landed in town, and Grandpa Constantine followed that trend. As soon as his children were old enough to get jobs, they gravitated to the food business and honed their chops as servers at some of the city's top fine-dining establishments, such as the Tenderloin Room, Stouffer's and the Red Carpet Inn. They worked over years to save up enough money to open a place of their own.
That restaurant, a partnership between Karagiannis' father, Harry, and his brother, Tom, opened in 1975 in an existing restaurant space just off Natural Bridge Road. Named after their youngest brother, Spiro's was envisioned as less of a traditional Greek spot and more of a culmination of the brothers' restaurant experience. Tom developed the menu, taking a little bit of everything he learned from other fine-dining spots and making it his own.
Its north-county guests received the Natural Bridge Spiro's well, and the family decided to parlay that success into additional locations. In 1977, they opened spots in south city on Watson and Arsenal, followed by a south-county location in 1979 and one in Chesterfield that served its firsts guests in 1981. As Karagiannis explains, it wasn't that the family wanted a restaurant empire for its own sake. But they were a large group and needed to support every member of the growing family.
The Spiro's family of restaurants thrived for many years thanks to their loyal patrons and a game-changing review by then-St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Jerry Berger. Over time, though, a few of the brothers and their offspring pivoted into the family's real estate business, leaving Harry and Tom to carry on the hospitality legacy.
Now, Karagiannis and Stacy McCullison, Tom's daughter, are the ones keeping their family's restaurant tradition alive in Chesterfield and in St. Charles, where they opened a store in 2004. For 15 years, they've been running daily operations as their fathers' health declined, though Karagiannis says, laughing, that they are unwilling to let go.
"My father is in a home now and has dementia, but when I go visit him, all he wants to do is talk business," Karagiannis says. "The only time he gets a lucid mind is when he asks me how the numbers are or how busy we were on a particular night. My uncle Tom is like that, too. He's in his 80s, is going blind and also has a little dementia, and he still calls the restaurant to make sure I'm working. If I ever take a couple of hours off, he's like, 'Oh, must be nice. I was on a street corner selling corn with no shoes when I was six.' How do you argue with that?"
Karagiannis and McCullison don't argue with it. They have dedicated their lives to making sure the businesses thrive as long as possible. They've been successful, maintaining a loyal following and adding new guests into the fold, even in the midst of the hardships of the last two years. Karagiannis believes the key to this success has been their commitment to keeping things consistent and never wavering from their family's fierce commitment to quality. He emphasizes that this, together with hard work and upholding the restaurant's culture, is what gives Spiro's its staying power.
"When a family comes in and celebrates all of their anniversaries and birthdays with us, that means something," Karagiannis says. "Of all of the restaurants out there they could have gone to, they choose us. There are so many people who we have hosted their rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions, kids' first birthdays and high school graduations. Then their kids come in and celebrate their rehearsal dinners and weddings. Now, their kids are doing the same. It makes me feel old, but it also means so much to us. The restaurant has become their tradition. That makes them part of the family."