George Koikos is a Hands-On Entrepreneur

Hands-On Entrepreneur George Koikos’ American dream was realized by pleasing customers and maintaining quality By Tori Gibbs Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

George Koikos greets visitors with a warm smile and a cold handshake. The warm smile is because he truly loves what he does; the cold handshake is because he also knows the meaning of hard work — he has just been in his restaurant’s freezer checking on supplies.

Koikos is the owner of Georgio’s Fine Food and Spirits, which boasts two locations in Tallahassee. But the establishments are only the most recent in a long list of highly successful restaurant ventures in which Koikos has been involved. He and his brothers have been effectively wooing restaurant-goers in Tallahassee for decades. And Koikos’ firm belief in maintaining quality cuisine, as well as his profound commitment to keeping customers happy, have enabled him to sail gracefully over the nation’s recent sea of economic troubles.

“We’re doing OK,” he says. “We’re off, but not enough to hurt us. We’re very lucky to have repeat customers for all these years.”

This, Koikos says, is also how he has managed to stay so firmly situated on top of the restaurant business among a veritable mob of big chains and corporations.

“A lot of businesses are hurting now, not just restaurants,” he says. “But I try to separate myself from the franchise concept. That’s why we succeed: They can’t compete with the quality. They can bring all the money in the world, but they cannot buy the quality.”

Koikos is clearly in his element at his restaurants, which comes as no surprise, since he has been in business for about 44 years. Koikos came to Tallahassee from Athens, Greece, in 1966, at the age of 31.

“It’s a wonderful city — beautiful people,” he says of his adopted home. “They’ve been good to me. We’ve been successful. I can’t complain.”

In 1969, just three years after arriving in Tallahassee, Koikos and his brothers opened the Spartan Restaurant in the city’s old Duval Hotel.

“We had no money in our pockets — not one penny,” he recalls. “The hotel was looking for someone to run the restaurant, so we leased it.” Eventually, however, Koikos’ partners left, and he was running the restaurant on his own.

“I worked three meals a day and stayed in the hotel,” he says. “I didn’t speak the language either, but I did it, thanks to the Tallahassee people. They helped me to do what I do now.”

After the Spartan came other restaurant undertakings: the Brothers Three in 1975, followed by Brothers Three by the Sea in Panacea, the Surf and Turf and Torreya Grill.

“At one point, we had five restaurants at one time,” he says. “It was wonderful. They were all a success, and we did very well. Now my brothers are retired, and I’m the only one left. They call me a workaholic. I love it. I love the business, and I love the people.”

Koikos credits his passion for the restaurant business to a rich family tradition in cooking and restaurant management.

“I started cooking when I was very little,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. My background was all in the restaurant business. My brother Jimmy was in the business, and my family (uncles and cousins) owns a restaurant, Bright Star, in Birmingham, Ala.”

Despite his brothers’ retirement, the family aspect of business has not changed for Koikos. His wife, Karen, and his daughter Leni are both deeply involved in the management and operation of Georgio’s.

“Mom is the lady behind the curtain,” says Leni Koikos, who has been working with her parents for years. “Dad is really outgoing and great with people, and Mom’s kind of shy so she does her thing. And it works out well, that team.”

George Koikos speaks of this husband-wife partnership with pride.

“She understands the life we lead,” he says. “The restaurant business is a tough business. I’m so proud of her to be involved with it and keep control of it.”

The biggest reasons for Koikos’ success are hard work and good quality. He is at both of his restaurants every day (except for Sundays, when they are closed), going through the walk-in coolers, checking to make sure everything is in its proper place, spotless and up to his lofty standards. Everything in the restaurants is done the old-fashioned way, with the freshest ingredients available — down to cutting their own fish and steaks, and making their own soups and stocks.

“He’s everywhere,” Leni Koikos says. “He’s a hawk; he can see everything. Nothing gets past him. If someone cuts the cake the wrong way, he’s like, ‘Who cut this cake like this?’”

Koikos’s devotion to pleasing his customers is boundless. When he started his wine list, it was composed of selections requested by his customers.

“The people tell me what they want and I put it on my wine list,” he explains. The same goes for entrée selections: “They say, ‘I’d like to have prime rib,’ and we’ll do it, I’ll put it on the menu. I try to work with the people.”

Koikos says this kind of flexibility and responsiveness is essential.

“This business is always very interesting, because every day you learn about the people — what they want, how they want it, everything else. You change yourself with the people; you are educated from the people, and you learn.”

Koikos and his daughter also emphasize another crucial aspect of the restaurant business: being there.

“If you leave your business for someone else to handle, they’re going to handle it probably not in the way you would want them to,” Leni Koikos says. “It’s a wonderful business to be in, but don’t expect it to be an easy job.”

Koikos adds that “some people start a business, they start making a little money, and they think they’re living the high life. You have to do honest hard work, treat the people right, and they can trust you.”

He also stresses the importance of reliable employees.

“I’ve been blessed to have wonderful people, some who have worked for me for 30 years,” he says. “You can’t have turnovers; you take time to train them, and then you have to train somebody else. Just work with the people you have and you’ll be much better off.”

“There’s a waitress who worked for him at the Spartan when I was a baby, and she’s still at Georgio’s,” Leni Koikos adds. “People do stick around. He’s a good boss, as long as you do your job.”

Koikos recalls Tallahassee in another era. He remembers Monroe Street, now one of the city’s main north-south thoroughfares, as a two-lane road. When he arrived, there were only five restaurants in town.

“When I applied for my whiskey license, we were No. 3,” he says. “There were not many restaurants. After all these years, this town has grown tremendously. There have been a lot of changes.”

Despite the rapid development of the city, Koikos still feels a sense of small-town closeness.

“What’s really neat about it,” says Leni Koikos, “is that people that have been in this community and lived here a long time will say, ‘I remember your dad and your uncles — we used to go to the Brothers Three all the time, and we used to go to the Spartan.’ That’s what’s really good about it: He’s made a lot of friends, and between him and his brothers, they know everybody.”

It’s those kinds of people and that sort of friendly community that have appealed the most to Koikos and kept him in Tallahassee all these years.

“Tallahassee has such wonderful people,” he says. “At one time, I remember, it was the best-kept secret in Florida — not a lot of people knew about it. It’s a wonderful city. People really appreciate what you do for them.”

Koikos also is conscious of giving back to the community.

“We try to get involved, and we do as much as we can,” he says. Georgio’s has been involved for many years with the Annual Chef’s Sampler, a fundraiser that benefits the Children’s Home Society. Leni Koikos does work with Big Bend Hospice. The family also provides donations through the restaurant and gives away gift certificates for raffles and other events in the community.

After all these years, Koikos says he is as happy as can be.

“I reached the American dream,” he says. “I’m not rich, I work 18 hours a day, but I’ve got everything in the world.”

“I started cooking when I was very little,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. My background was all in the restaurant business. My brother Jimmy was in the business, and my family (uncles and cousins) owns a restaurant, Bright Star, in Birmingham, Ala.”

Talking with George

Best advice ever received: It came from my father: Treat the people right, and they will treat you right. Don’t try to make a quick, easy buck.

Average day: You never know. It’s a challenge. You never know what your day is going to be like or how many people you’re going to have. Every day is interesting; different people come, and you see different faces. Then we have repeat customers, regulars. It’s a pleasure to get up and go see my people and my business.

Favorite food: Fresh seafood. I also eat a lot of vegetables. That’s what I eat every night. People ask me why I’m so healthy; I say it’s because I eat at Georgio’s every night.