Working nonstop for 24 years, Eleni Fetokakis built her restaurant.
By Wendy Grossman – Houston Press
Eleni Fetokakis runs her Greek-American cafe, Niko Niko’s, with a German work ethic. She tells employees if they want to relax, go home. She says she isn’t running a school, she’s running a restaurant, and she doesn’t have time to teach every one how to do everything every day. If someone isn’t doing something right, she follows behind giving orders and corrections. This is nothing new. She’s operated like this since the beginning. “She was a tyrant,” remembers her 28-year-old son, Dimitrios Fetokakis. She fired him almost every day (until he bought the place).
Eleni was born in the back of her father’s restaurant — just after lunch Christmas Day, 1937. Most of Niko Niko’s recipes she learned in her father’s kitchen just outside Athens; the rest, her husband and son invented. Cleanliness is what Eleni is most strict about. Everyone who works in the restaurant is constantly cleaning; as soon as the woman finishes mopping the floors, she starts again. The 12 Blue Ribbon Awards Marvin Zindler gave Eleni are proudly displayed by the register. Customers have complained that the place smells like Pine-Sol. Forty years ago Eleni was a popular singer touring Greek nightclubs from Athens to L.A. Then she fell in love with a man who loved food. They married and eventually landed in Houston and opened Niko Niko’s. At one point her husband gave up on the place, wanted to sell everything and move back to Greece. He left, but Eleni stayed, keeping the business alive and building it into what it is today: a crowded restaurant presided over by a woman who won’t stop working.
Tassos Mavridoldlou was a merchant marine who jumped ship in Montreal. Playing the bouzouki (Greek guitar), he earned enough money to bring his 18-year-old sister, Eleni, across the ocean. She shortened her name to Eleni Mavri and sang with her brother. A year later she was introduced to her first husband, a restaurateur 20 years her senior.
“It was sort of like an arranged marriage,” her son Dimitri says.
“Bad arranged,” Eleni says curtly. A few months after her wedding, her parents sold Astra, their restaurant in Piraeus (the port seven miles from Athens), and moved to Montreal. Her father hated the cold and moved back to Greece. Eleni’s mother stayed while Eleni was pregnant, before rejoining her husband. Eleni told her mother she was unhappy — her husband was a nice person, he was neat, he was clean, but every day she liked him less. She didn’t want him near her. “I couldn’t stand him,” Eleni says. Her mother said to wait until she could come help her work things out. Afraid her mother would make her stay married, 21-year-old Eleni took her year-old baby and left.
Eleni’s father died, and her mother moved to Montreal. She baby-sat Eleni’s son while Eleni and her brother toured through Greek communities in America. Singing in New York City’s Grecian Palace, Eleni met another bouzouki player and fell fast in love. She was 25 when she married him wearing a black dress at City Hall. A year later they had a son; the next year Eleni was pregnant with her daughter.
While she was pregnant, her husband started sleeping with the belly dancer who toured with them; the dancer’s daughter was four months younger than Eleni’s. “So we divorce,” Eleni says simply. She took her three children and toured through Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Athens, Tarpon Springs and Toronto before moving back to Montreal. Her scrapbook is filled with pictures of her singing in spike heels and glamorous gowns, posing with Greece’s top movie stars and musicians. She cut three records, singing songs about men leaving. Singing in Montreal, the last day of June 1967, she met Chrisanthios Fetokakis. The next night was his 33rd birthday, and he asked her to join him for dinner. She said she’d like to, but she had plans with her sister; he told her to bring her sister.
Like Eleni’s brother, Chris had been a sailor who jumped ship in Montreal when he was 17. He came from Chios, a Greek island filled with fields of evergreens and wild tulips; the small isle doesn’t have tourists and doesn’t want any. In Montreal, Chris got a job at a hot dog stand. Soon he bought it. By the time he met 30-year-old Eleni he had bought and sold 28 businesses. Many Greek immigrants gravitate toward restaurants because food is something most every Greek person knows. In Greece, everyone eats out; they don’t sit home eating Lean Cuisine — they like food that is fresh, not frozen. Greeks go out most nights to sing, dance, drink and eat. “That’s the joy,” Eleni says. “Wine and food and sex make everybody happy.”
Greeks spend afternoons sitting outside, lingering over Nescafé. “It’s so hard for us to do over here in the United States — if you tell somebody you’re going to go for three or four hours for lunch, they think you’re crazy,” says Frixos Hrisinis, owner of Mykonos Island Restaurant. At American dinner hours, Greek restaurants are empty, but from midnight until 3 a.m. they’re jumping. “In Greece they sit at the table for hours and there’s no looking at the clock,” says Michael Papapostoulou, a manager for the Bibas restaurants.
Eleni and Chris were married March 19, 1970; he was the first man whose name she took. Planning to return to Greece, they sold everything and moved to New York City, but a cousin was running dice and card games, and Chris went in on the business. “He was a gambler himself,” Dimitri says. “He could make $5,000 a night and in the morning it would be gone.”
When Dimitri was born, two years later, Eleni quit singing and smoking. Chris kept gambling. He won big, but in a few years he lost everything. “We didn’t have a penny,” Eleni says. Eleni’s daughter, Maria Michas, remembers it was Easter weekend when Chris sat the family down and asked the boys for suggestions on where they should move. “They didn’t ask my opinion,” Maria says. “They asked the boys — that’s how it is in Greek families.” Maria didn’t want to move; she wanted to stay in the city taking ballet and piano lessons. They sold the piano that week and moved to Houston. An aunt and uncle lived in the brick apartments next to the Hollywood Food Store on Montrose, so they rented an apartment there. “There were so many Greeks,” Dimitri says. “Montrose was all Greek at one time.”
Chris promised Eleni he would quit gambling. For nine months Chris worked as a cook at Zorba the Greek. The kids found a mutt they named Nikki; at first the landlady said it was okay, but then she changed her mind. Eleni couldn’t ask her children to get rid of the dog, so she told her husband they had to move.
Sitting on the front steps of the complex, Chris and Eleni saw a “For Rent” sign on the old filling station. Chris went across the street and tore down the sign. With $50 in his pocket, he signed the lease on the storefront and moved his family into the house behind it. With a partner, Chris opened a fruit stand; they both had sons named Nikos (and Chris’s middle name was Nikos), so they named it Niko Niko’s.
Wanting to open a restaurant (without a partner), Chris went to Pete Pappas and told him about his bad luck; he said he had lost his money and needed a fresh start. “He looked like he was deserving of another chance,” says Pete, now 81. Pete asked if he was a gambler.
“Yes,” Chris said. “I am.”
“Me too,” Pete said. “Take whatever you want.” He gave Chris all the equipment he needed and told Chris to pay him back when he started making money. “He saw my dad was a risk taker,” Dimitri says. “People told him he was crazy trying to sell gyros to cowboys.” The walk-up window opened May 1, 1977. They made $15 the first day. A week later Channel 11 and the newspapers came, and customers followed; they cleared $1,100 a day. “They started out gangbusters,” Pete says. “It was a gamble going in. I didn’t think it was gonna do too good. But I was fooled.”
At first they just had picnic tables that they chained down at night. Soon they enclosed a seating area and Eleni hung fake grapes from the ceiling and painted a mural of Athens on the wall. “You could probably pluck it out of Montrose and stick it in Greece,” says Michael Massa, the owner of Massa’s. “His food is almost better than the food we had in Greece.” It was three years before Chris told Eleni the recipe for the fish and chips.
In 1980 they opened Mana, Eleni’s steak house a few blocks over. It did well, but Chris wanted to go home. The year Maria started college at the University of Texas in Austin, Chris sold the steak house, left the two oldest boys in charge of Niko Niko’s and moved his wife and son to Chios. “They were done,” Dimitri says. “He wanted to retire.”
But after a few months they were back in Houston. Eleni says they came home because she missed her children. Dimitri says it’s a more complicated story, the boys weren’t running the place like they should, they were partying instead of paying bills. “My parents freaked out — we’re not very serious people — but Niko Niko’s we take very seriously,” Dimitri says. “There’s too much depending on it.”
Dimitri says Chris didn’t feel like the boys were respecting his authority as their father and he was tired of it. He wanted to sell everything and move back to Greece. “He wanted to get out,” Dimitri says. But Eleni didn’t want to be that far away from her kids — and she had grown to like America and air-conditioning. Chris wanted her to move with him to Vegas. “I said, ‘No. You’ll gamble and we’ll be out on the street,’ ” she says. “So we divorce.”
She sighs. “It’s my fault too,” she says. “I’m mean. I cared more for my children.” Chris left half the property to Dimitri and half to Eleni — he told her to take care of his boy and left. She cried every morning and every evening; in between she worked. This was her third divorce, but the other two hadn’t hurt this hard because she hadn’t cared for the other men as much. “So I work, work, work and forget,” she says. She worked from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. With the money she earned, Eleni paid for her daughter’s undergraduate, master’s and medical degrees.
In Vegas, Chris started running games again.
Dimitri wanted a Niko Niko’s on every block. When he graduated high school he dreamed of opening 150 stores. Pete Pappas told him it’s better to have one good restaurant and be able to sleep. “But I wanted more than one,” Dimitri says. He rented an old pizza joint on the corner of San Felipe and Winrock. “That’s how I got my dad to come back from Vegas,” he says. Dimitri needed help, and he didn’t want to work with his mother.
The new cafe was a full-service sit-down restaurant with tablecloths, china and linen napkins instead of the bare wood benches, Styrofoam plates and paper towels at his mom’s place. It didn’t work. “He tried to be too high-class,” Pete says.
After a few months Dimitri fired the waiters, moved the register to the front and went back to the old way. But he was 19 years old, and when the money came in, he says, he started doing what his brothers had done when they ran the business: He put his newly earned dollars down G-strings. He had a table at Caligula and stopped paying the bills. “I was going out all the time,” Dimitri says. “History was repeating itself.” His father told him to straighten up. When he didn’t, Chris told him he was on his own and went back to Vegas. Every night, his mother came straight from her restaurant to work at his so he could make enough money to pay the rent. She fried fish in the kitchen, then sang to the customers. “My mother was always there; she stood by my side — screaming and yelling — but holding me up,” Dimitri says.
He was about to file bankruptcy when someone bought the store. Dimitri took the money to Vegas to patch things up with his father; they played craps for three days, then spent a month in Greece before Dimitri came home to work for his mother. Business boomed.
“It’s always struck me as kinda grubby but well loved,” Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor and publisher of My Table, says of Niko Niko’s. “I remember sitting under the air conditioner, it leaked on me, dripped on my head. But it’s endured.” One reason for the popularity, she thinks, is that Greek food is a fairly healthy, low-fat choice. The foods are prepared with simple spices, olive oil, oregano, garlic and lemon, she says. “The flavors are very clear; they’re not subtle,” she says. “It’s not like Mexican cooking — mole sauce has 20 ingredients. Greek food is a little more straightforward.”
It’s simpler than other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, says Ben Berryhill, executive chef at Cafe Annie. “Simple is what always turns me on,” he says. He goes to Niko Niko’s about three times a week, and his wife eats there almost every day. “It’s country cuisine; it’s home cooking developed to satisfy and satiate and make people feel comfortable and that they’ve had an experience — as opposed to fine dining, which is more with the artistic flair and the inspiration and creativity and all that.”
He loves that he can get a lamb shank “braised to perfection” that rivals the most expensive restaurants in town, but at Niko Niko’s he can eat it on a paper plate.
Chris always said if he ever married again, Eleni was the only woman he wanted. He never stopped loving her. Chris’s father died in 1995; he and Dimitri went to the funeral in Chios. Back in the States, Chris didn’t want to leave Dimitri again. Eleni was grief-stricken by her former father-in-law’s death too, so they comforted each other. They never legally remarried because they felt they were still married in God’s eyes.
One day, two and a half years ago, 62-year-old Chris didn’t feel well. “He just seemed real draggy,” Dimitri says. He had a bypass that afternoon. Chris started walking on the treadmill and getting better. He wanted to go to Greece to see his mother. Eleni asked Chris to wait a couple of months so she could go with him. Her daughter was buying a house and she wanted to help her move. “Please stay,” Eleni begged. But he left.
Chris’s mother died August 8; two days later he got a fever; a week later, he was in the hospital. Eleni flew across the ocean, but he died while she was on the plane. “I have very bad luck,” she says. The whole island came to the funeral. Talking about it, Eleni’s eyes are wet; she clenches her fist and won’t let the tears fall.
She wears Chris’s wedding band on her right hand. Living downstairs from her daughter, she plays with her four-year-old granddaughter, cooks, cleans, works in the restaurant and spends her nights watching the three Greek channels on her satellite dish. Usually she volunteers at the church’s annual Greek Fest, but this year she was too sad to laugh and joke and tell people that Greek coffee will improve their sex life. She tells Dimitri she needs to die soon so his father won’t find another woman in heaven.
Fries are boiling; pita bread is browning on the grill; slabs of lamb and beef spin and sweat. By 11:21 Friday morning, the line at Niko Niko’s stretches into the back. Dimitri, 28, stands at the counter in his black rubber Birkenstocks looking like an extraordinarily friendly bouncer; he takes orders, greets customers and answers the phone all at once. He tears through the line calling every woman “dear” or “sweetheart” in a way that’s endearing, not irritating. Behind him three women work double-time: One slices the gyros; another spoons up tzatziki sauce; the third slices and peels potatoes all day. Dimitri bought the restaurant from his mother three years ago. He’s trained the staff so they all know how to do each other’s jobs. “Like a casino where all the dealers switch from table to table every 20 minutes,” Dimitri says. “Everybody should know every game here.”
“Can I get the dog-mates?” asks a guy with a thick Texas accent.
“Dolmades,” Dimitri says, correcting his pronunciation for stuffed grape leaves. He says it’ll take about 15 minutes. The guy looks upset and orders a shish kebab (which takes about the same time).
“Where you going, man?” Dimitri asks. “You in a rush?”
The food Niko Niko’s sells isn’t fast food — the Mexican women in the kitchen may serve it in ten minutes — but the roasted potatoes boil on the stove for two hours then cook in the oven another 30 minutes. In the back, one woman is patiently painting butter onto strips of phyllo dough as she layers baklava; another is slicing the fat off 20 pounds of baby lamb shanks. She’s going to spend all afternoon seasoning and roasting them.
The lamb kebab is thrown on the chargrill, and flames engulf it; the air smells like spiced meat and mushrooms. By noon the tables are all full. Customers are standing around, and bags of to-go orders line the counter. Dimitri recently donated the pink-and-blue home he grew up in to indigent housing; the house will be picked up and moved to a new location, so there will be room to expand the restaurant. He wants to add another ten tables. No matter what time of day, Niko Niko’s is packed. The lunch crowd tapers off just as the dinner rush begins. Dimitri watches the windows, and if he sees a homeless person wave to him or pet his German shepherd, Athena, Dimitri orders a gyro or fries to go. If someone is hungry, he feeds them.
While he works the register, Dimitri tastes every sauce and soup that is made before it’s served. He can tell if something needs a pinch of salt or another clove of garlic. “Shit,” he says. “All I know how to do is eat.”
At 12:45 Eleni arrives. Her daughter accidentally took Eleni’s car keys, so Eleni begged the men painting her house to drive her to Niko Niko’s. She stands by the counter in a gray pantsuit smiling and greeting customers. She doesn’t have to yell at anyone nowadays, the staff is so well trained. She gently says “Señora” and gestures to a table that needs cleaning, but there’s an urgency in her eyes that the staff doesn’t miss.
Pete Pappas has been telling Dimitri it’s time for him to expand the business, and Eleni hates retirement. She wants to evict Dimitri from his home next door and open a Greek bakery. She doesn’t like sitting at home drinking coffee, doing nothing, feeling old.
She wants to work.