Greektown, Chinatown and Little Italy. Food, culture and businesses drive these small communities in the cultural center that is Chicago.
Meghann Staff, a senior at Columbia College, loves living in the windy city and immersing herself in different cultures and cuisines.
“I grew up with a mother who cooked the same continental dishes every week,” Staff said. “When my palette started to develop and I ate more adventurously, I realized that there were also these beautiful and elaborate customs involved in eating food from a specific culture.”
The restaurant district of Chicago’s historic Greektown neighborhood on the city’s Near West side is getting some help during these tough economic times. The neighborhood has created the Greektown Chamber of Commerce to aide the restaurants and other businesses in maintaining Greek culture.
“The purpose of this is to preserve and keep Greektown alive,” said Yianni Theoharis, owner of Meli Cafe and Muses. “We believe in a city you should have a flavor and culture.”
A recent fire in Greektown destroyed part of the district. The Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop, Athens Grocery, Greektown Music and Costa’s restaurant were engulfed in the fire.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from the community and everybody is pulling for me,” said Yianni Morikis, owner of Greektown Music. “Loosing all my inventory was a big setback but I’ve slowly been building my stock back up. I’m kind of starting over fresh, so that’s good.”
There are about 30 active members of the Greektown Chamber of Commerce, most of which are restaurants. It is a non-profit organization, so members pay an annual fee relative to the size of the restaurant.
“Instead of a finger you have a fist. Instead of one voice you have many voices,” Theoharis said.
The chamber holds monthly meetings where the business owners can come together and discuss community issues. The group is in constant contact with the Alderman’s office and also assists with any issues a member is having with the city, such as sidewalk cleanup.
“When it comes down to it, we’re competitors, but we can help each other with other things,” Theoharis said. “It’s more of a community than a business.”
One thing the chamber doesn’t want is for companies like McDonald’s or Denny’s to move into the neighborhood. Starbucks is the only chain restaurant currently in Greektown.
Theoharis estimates there are 40-50 restaurants in Greektown with about $30-$40 million grossed annually. He also estimates the restaurant district employs about 1,500 workers. Theoharis himself employs about 60 people between Meli and Muses.
“It attracts a lot of tourists to the ward and they keep a lot of people working,” 27th Ward Alderman Walter J. Burnett, Jr. said.
However, Yianni Theoharis admits that the industry is changing, and if a restaurant stays behind the times they will suffer the consequences.
“I believe younger people are spending the money, not older people,” he said. “The consumer is more educated than they were 15 or 20 years ago.”
Even during the tough economic times, Thoeharis did not raise Meli’s prices.
“It’s not about money; it’s about pride,” Theoharis said. “Meli is so finely detailed. We make our own marmalades, there’s no way we could become a Denny’s or McDonald’s.”
Meli prides itself on using many organic and natural ingredients. The cafe, which is located at 301 S. Halsted St., also uses 100 percent pure maple syrup and features freshly squeezed juices. Theoharis believes restaurants who are adapting to the times are the ones who are being successful.