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Joe Forte: This is the second session in an oral history, the subject and narrator being Chris Kappas and the history of the Greek community in Blacksburg and in and around Virginia Tech, New River Valley and some of the local history surrounding the restaurants that Chris has run with his family. My name is Joe Forte. I'll be the interviewer for this second session in this oral history series. We're recording in the first floor of Newman Library. It's August 7th at two o'clock in the afternoon. We left off last time, I think, pretty much with your arrival on the scene in 1938, was it? You were born in Greece. We just talked about the relationship between your mother and father and the nature of that. I guess we could go over it a little bit. We went over how your father 1:00emigrated from Greece to the United States in roughly 1913.

Chris Kappas: Exactly.

Joe: Exactly in 1913. He got into the restaurant business, went back to Greece to find a bride, your mother, but left her behind to come later. She was pregnant with you. You were born, World War II breaks out, so you can't come over to America initially, and then you finally meet your father in 1946, was it? Something like that?

Chris: 1947.

Joe: 1947. Today I'd like to begin, if we can, and we can fill in any open gaps we left in that history, but I'd like to start by talking about your life in Greece during the first eight years of your life.

Chris: My goodness. Obviously, I remember most of it growing up during the war. 2:00For some reason, I don't know why my father came to the United States and left mother there. I think it was just to do the necessary paperwork. I think because he didn't want to leave the business for so long and then come back with a bride. But in any event, he did leave my mother pregnant with me. I was born in 1938, just about the time World War II was started. I don't remember exactly when Mussolini decided to occupy Greece.

Joe: I think the Axis powers were occupying by something like [19]41.

Chris: Yeah and I think from what I understand from history, Mussolini and Hitler got together the Axis powers, and I don't think Hitler had much of an idea that he wanted to occupy Greece at all. He wanted to go to the Russian front immediately, as soon as he could. He wanted to conquer Russia. But I think 3:00Mussolini's idea was to give Hitler a little present. How else do you get a present? Albania was occupied, then Yugoslavia was occupied. And he sends his Greek ambassador to the Prime Minister of Greece, Metaxas I believe was his name, and tells the Prime Minister that, we are on the border of Greece and we're ready to come in with no objection. And even to this day, I think Greece celebrates October the 25th as the Ohi day, called, no, you have no right to come through my country, and it's a big event. I just don't remember exactly the date, the year that was. Of course, we can look it up.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: But Mussolini doesn't pay any attention. By the time he leaves the Prime 4:00Minister's office, the Italian troops already crossed from Albania into the Greek border. From my understanding, there was two or three attacks to Greece because the Greeks repelled them. Every time the Italians came in into the northern province of Greece, the [Greeks] repelled them. Several battles. Over the period of time, Hitler is a little agitated, I think. Pulls his troops from the Russian front, the Barbarossa offensive, was that what it was called?

Joe: I'm not sure.

Chris: To occupy Greece. Of course, he occupies Greece in no time at all with his Panzer division and all that stuff. They had to be around 1940, [19]41. I think it took longer to occupy the island of Crete than it took longer to occupy 5:00Greece. In any event, the Axis powers just were not nice at all. As I said previously, they just burned everything. Raped the land, and what they couldn't eat they just burned.

Joe: Were you living in an area that is obviously an occupied territory? What was your sense of how the order in society was kept?

Chris: Well, I was born in Athens. After I was born, my mother took me back to the villages where she was from in the central part of Greece, and very much occupied. Scared to death, I remember, running from mountainside to mountainside or from burned out village to burned out village. I may have mentioned before that in one particular evening, it was dark. We were in a cave hiding from the 6:00Germans or the Italians. Somebody said they were coming over the other side of the mountain, coming toward us. Then everybody just scurried away, and in my mother's panic, she picked up a duffle bag or a sack, three or four o'clock in the morning in the dark. She didn't know what she was doing. She was scared, panicked, and picked up a sack or something thinking it was me and left me there.

Joe: So you're in a cave?

Chris: Yeah. I'm in a cave, we're hiding like everybody else was, and some other lady from where we were with, from the same village probably, sort of picked me up and carried me to my mother over a period of some distance. Of course, my mother was way up but she realized what she did wrong, probably running back to catch me but anyway, the lady caught up with her, and there I was. I do remember 7:00the war in a way that it was very traumatic, sort of scary. People knocking on your doors, Germans, Italians occupying your house for no--it was their house.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Across several houses--not my grandmother's house, my grandmother's house was not like that but some other houses in that particular village were. Just as a child, I remember it was traumatic. I may have mentioned to you before, when we had the 9/11 attack in New York, I was in Greece at the time vacationing. Seeing the scenes from the airplanes attacking the Twin Towers sort of brought images back as a child, from what I saw in the villages and bombings and stuff like that. I was a little traumatized.

Joe: So fire and explosion were more commonplace than you may have preferred.


Chris: I remember just couldn't understand, obviously 9/11 we didn't know what was going on. But I couldn't believe what was happening. It sort of brought back a World War II scene in my mind, and I remember how emotional I got. I wept a lot that day and the following day, that something like that could be happening in the United States. But anyway, the war was over, what, 1944, [19]45. My father, of course, at times did not know if we were safe or not. He recounted they would either call up the State Department or letters to see where we were.

Joe: What was communication like from inside the occupied--?

Chris: As far as I know, there was hardly any communication except the Greek 9:00army and the underground.

Joe: Were you able to get any word from your father during this time?

Chris: At times, letters would be able to come in. But mostly it was after the war that we really communicated.

Joe: How did your mother talk about your father to you?

Chris: I'm not sure how much she talked about my father. Probably in the areas of, we'll be alright, your father is waiting for us, that type of thing. As a four- or a five-year-old, I don't remember that much, her talking about my dad. But we were trapped in the village with my grandmother and my mother's two sisters. After the war was over, which is another bad aspect of Greek history, was that the resistance during the war, fighting the Germans and the Italians with the Greek army, the resistance during the war and after the war became 10:00communist. Greek communist guerrillas, which would have been part of the Eastern block after the war, because Slavia, Romania, Albania, all that occupied by Moscow.

Joe: The Greek Civil War is largely considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, right?

Chris: Exactly.

Joe: You would have been leaving the country right around the time that was being resolved, right?

Chris: Thank you for asking that. We did. We left the country right before the Greek Civil--we heard that there was conflict between the Greek communist guerrillas and the army up in the mountains. We were in Athens at that time. We left right before the Civil War really began, which lasted maybe approximately two, two-and-a-half years, I'm not sure. Being in the United States was good 11:00news, bad news, whether or not we escaped. But Grandmother and my two aunts who were in Greece during that time.

Joe: Were there attempts made to take them with you?

Chris: Oh, yeah. The attempts were made. They were kidnapped. Both of my aunts were kidnapped by the Greek communist guerillas. They took a lot of young people, whether they were girls or boys, whatever, and shipped them up north. The Greek word for that is paidomázoma [Παιδομάζωμα], gathering the youth, and ship them up to concentration camps for communist orientation.

Joe: Now this is the resistance which during the war--

Chris: It was pro-army.

Joe: Was your family and your neighbors, were they involved in aiding the resistance in any way?

Chris: The Greek Civil War involved father against son.

Joe: No, but I mean, during the occupation though, when the resistance was fighting for it.

Chris: We were here then. Mother and I were here, but my aunts and my 12:00grandmother were in Greece during the resistance.

Joe: Mm-hmm. No, no. What I'm trying to say is, you spoke of the resistance army evolving into the communists, right?

Chris: Right, mm-hmm.

Joe: But was this an active resistance during the Axis occupation, and what was your experience of the resistance as citizens?

Chris: As citizens, I didn't know that much. We knew that the Greeks had formed the resistance group, sort of like the French underground and this was the Greek underground type of thing. That they fought the Italians and the Germans. But I don't believe neither the King of Greece at that time, King Paul, I believe it was, or the Prime Minister were aware that the resistance movement would be dominated by communists. I need to brush up on my history on that a little bit.

Joe: When you speak of running from the occupying forces, was that just an 13:00attempt to avoid a power that was unconcerned with your welfare to the degree that they were harmful, or were you and your family as well as you remember engaged in some activity that they were specifically seeking to quell? You follow what I'm asking?

Chris: I'm trying. I don't remember exact details, but there were people in the village that my mother recalls that saw that some of the townspeople, or the village people, were leaning toward the communist guerrillas primarily after the war. They said it was more traumatic than the World War II itself. Even though Greece was occupied, the communist guerillas were ruthless. They killed priests, they killed town leaders, they killed anybody that was absolutely 14:00anti-democratic. Am I doing something wrong or--

Joe: No, no.

Chris: Okay.

Joe: Generally--go ahead.

Chris: But listen, but you know what happened, Truman saw what was going on. George Marshall saw what was going on. It was not only Greece that was threatened by the communists after the war, it was Turkey also. That's where the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine came in. The Marshall Plan was to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine was to help Greece and Turkey escape communist control. That was just a tremendous achievement by Harry Truman who happens to be one of my idols as far as presidents go. Their policy of containment was that, and they saw that the Iron Curtain was going to go up about the middle of Europe and that's it. How do you fight them? You just resist them as you care. 15:00You don't fight bullets with them. Of course, you know the Berlin division was different. We flew into Berlin, but I don't know how they divided Berlin into four groups. But Europe was definitely divided by the Iron Curtain, Churchill said, in the East and the West Communists was a democracy. Greece was extremely lucky through the Marshall Plan and through the Truman Doctrine. The money that came in was incredible to fight this menace. I do remember before we went to Athens, airplanes flying over, announcing the fact that Truman is going to intervene in this conflict. That was even before it got started 100 percent. Of course, Greece has been part of NATO and all that stuff since then. 16:00There's no doubt in my mind that the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan saved Greece and Turkey from going communist. Of course, we didn't save all of Europe, but then, you know, communism doesn't work. I'm not taking anything away from President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall". I think the wall began to be torn down at the end of World War II because communism does not work. You can't build a wall and keep people out or keep people in, whatever. I don't want to bring up the wall today. But anyway--

Joe: Right [Right].

Chris: Communist Russia just doesn't work.

Joe: So then, as you're coming to the United States and then in the United States, let me just ask you, what's your sense of how closely your family followed these events that you're describing, the development of the Marshall 17:00Plan and NATO, and what was happening back in Europe?

Chris: Very closely. My father did. A matter of fact, in the restaurant, the Cellar restaurant--not the old restaurant, the old Greek's restaurant--he had a picture of Franklin Roosevelt on one side of the cash register behind the wall, and the other side, Harry Truman. As I got older, I said, I guess because Roosevelt and the Social Security thing, and obviously Truman because of his decision to save Greece and Turkey from communism. My dad followed it pretty closely. There was letters to Dean Acheson or to the State Department about how my aunts were, because during the Civil War, there was hardly any communication at all when we were here from 1947 till the Communist in 1949, 1950, 1949, I 18:00think the Civil War was over--we had no idea if my aunts or my grandmother were alive. 'Cause the Greek Communists--very brutal. I do remember that. Like I said, both of my aunts were captured by the Greek communist guerrillas. The younger ones stayed in confinement with the guerrillas. My aunt escaped one night with about two or three other girls. There was a price on her head, said, bring me Mrs. Alataris' head, and you will get so much money.

Joe: But they both survived?

Chris: They both survived. Very traumatic.

Joe: How long after the war was finished did you find out about your family?

Chris: Almost immediately. It was correspondence, whatever.

Joe: Do you remember a period of great celebration as the resolution of the war?


Chris: I'm not sure. It was relief, obviously. My mother was relieved. I'm still young, I have my aunts and my grandmother. But Anna, my oldest aunt, her experiences were very traumatic, especially when she saw posters in villages with her name and demanding her head. They did cut your head off, especially if you were a priest.

Joe: Did they? Did they come to this country eventually or--?

Chris: Yes. I'm glad we got it to that. After the Civil War was over, Mother--then I think sponsorship became that you have to be a sponsor to bring somebody over from Europe. Mother brought over her younger sister, the middle sister, Anna. Then after a while, Alexandra, mother's aunt, came over. Grandmother was left there alone, and then after a while, she came over. All of 20:00this was through my dad and his financial situation to be able to bring my mother's relatives over. On the other side of the corner, on my father's side, they were really up in remote villages, and what was left of them, they were at that age to where they wouldn't want to travel to come to the United States. It wouldn't have done them any good at all. But along those lines, my father did help a lot of Greeks get to the United States because of his support.

Joe: Outside the family?

Chris: Oh my goodness. Yes, absolutely. I don't know how many families he brought over. A couple of families settled in Blacksburg. Of course, there was not enough business to take care of everybody and they made their own way independently.

Joe: Were your family members all Blacksburg, or did they settle other places as well?

Chris: The family members settled in Blacksburg. Anna, after she was here a 21:00while, was married to a gentleman, Jim Havelos, who later became a partner in my father's business. Alexandra got married in Greece, and she came over with her husband and settled in Blacksburg but later on moved on to Winston-Salem. There were some families, initially in Blacksburg, but finding other work was one thing. We have Charlotte, North Carolina, which has a large Greek American population, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Greensboro, Raleigh-Durham area, and obviously Roanoke too, but not as big as those areas. They settled where there were people of their own culture, their own language, and ethnic background.

Joe: Sure.

Chris: It was not easy coming over. Most of these people--as a child, I 22:00remember--they were dishwashers, washing dishes at very minimum amount of wages. Because one, you gotta learn, you don't know the language until you get assimilated into the community. But you have to start somewhere.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: My father used to say, there's no job that's demeaning as long as it's done honestly, even if it's washing dishes, pots, pans, and cleaning out sewer lines. Immigrants had it rough. I'm not sure all immigrants had it rough, but I'll assume most of them had it rough - start over again in a new land and learn a new language.

Joe: You've referenced just now and you had mentioned before some of the different iterations that some of the restaurants took in Blacksburg and how they were partnerships and off-shoots that were administered by relatives who 23:00married in or moved in. Is this the time when this is happening, when some more folks are coming over from Greece or--?

Chris: But not necessarily coming to Blacksburg, going elsewhere. Right after the war, there was a tremendous amount of immigration from Greece. 1955, 1960s, 1965, even up to 1970.

Joe: Yeah, that period from the [19]50s to the [19]70s is a big Greek influx, especially in the New York area.

Chris: Absolutely.

Joe: I think Boston and Chicago.

Chris: Absolutely.

Joe: But in New York, that growth is--there's an attribution often made that the rise of the Greek-owned diners in the New York, New Jersey area.

Chris: Not only that but Greek areas in New York City called Astoria, almost 90, 95 percent of Greek ethnic background. I go to Astoria now with my wife or whatever and I visit relatives. At times, I feel like I'm in Athens, not hardly 24:00anybody speaking in English. You go to most every other place is a Greek restaurant or selling shish kebabs or spanakopita or whatever. But it was not only the Greeks. There was the Italian neighborhood in New York where they settled, Bronx or wherever, I'm not sure. The Irish, wherever they settled. Chicago's the same way, Halsted Street, Greektown. I've been there a couple of times, incredible place. Where the early Greeks, like my dad, really assimilated, didn't form their own little cliques or anything like that. But the ethnics that came in after World War II, 1960s, 1970, whatever, they formed the long, again, what I call the, hyphenated Americans, clique type of thing that I don't really like.

Joe: Are you describing a--

Chris: I'm bringing it up to date, sort of.

Joe: Yeah, but a greater willingness to hold onto culture rather than assimilate 25:00into American culture in the later wave of immigration, or are you saying it the other way?

Chris: I think both. I think we see some people who have never forgotten their Greekness and they want to hold on forever. I see others appreciate their ethnic background like myself. I've said before, I'm not a hyphenated American. I'm an American citizen, who happens to be of a Greek ethnic background. I think that to me, that's important. Maybe some of my fellow Greeks don't think so. They've assimilated, but at times they still want to keep their own thing. Even when I was growing up or out of high school into college, we would go to Greek baptisms 26:00or weddings or social functions and the word was, well, did your son or did your daughter marry a xenos? A foreigner? Wait a minute. Who's a foreigner here? You follow me? You follow my thought?

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: What's the English word? Xenophobia?

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Well, it comes from the Greek xenos meaning a foreigner. Did your daughter marry a foreigner or a Greek? [Laughter]

Joe: In my family, it was the same thing. My grandmother would always say, you go like the Americans, which in English means the Americans or anyone who's not Italian.

Chris: Absolutely. That's right. You come from Italian background. Amerikanoí, Amerikanós. But in Greece, when they hear Amerikanós, they think--all they hear is, oh, they have money. They didn't think about America as a country. They thought of America as a place of money. Then when they got here, they realized they had to wash dishes. It was a little different. [Laughter]

Joe: The restaurant business then, food-service industry in general, it's an 27:00easy route to employment for an immigrant, so that's, pardon the explanation, for movement into that business. But then when it comes to an entrepreneurial side and opening up a restaurant of your own, you get, like, the Greek diners we're speaking of, then in your restaurants. Once it's time to run the show with the restaurant, how important is the communication of one's own culture through the running of that restaurant, the planning of that menu? Is that important?

Chris: It is important. But I think most of the restaurants that were opened up forty or fifty years ago, they went with an American menu or the local foods--

Joe: That's how you describe your father's earlier restaurants--

Chris: Absolutely. Greasy Spoon or--whatever, I mean Greasy Spoon in a way, but it was hot dogs, hamburgers, and meatloaf, hamburger steaks, that type. But there was no Greek menu.


Joe: That's what the restaurant was like when you came over?

Chris: Exactly. All the Greek-owned restaurants had an American cuisine. If you were in the South, Southern food. If you were North, maybe there's something different. But very few restaurants in early times had their own Greek cuisine. That was unheard of. They didn't even think about it. I thought about it forty-some years ago when I opened up Souvlaki. 'Cause I married a girl from New York, I'd go up there to see her and I would see vendors on the streets selling shish kebabs, and I said, I'm wondering if this is gonna work. Are we jumping here a little bit?

Joe: It's fine. Go ahead. We can always jump back.

Chris: Yeah, we can always jump back. [Laughter] I told Maria, I said, I wonder if a shish kebab cart would work on College Avenue. This was after we were married. She said, it probably would. I said, I started worrying about the weather. Anyway, I got a picture of a shish kebab cart and I called my health 29:00inspector before I brought it down to see if it'll be alright. He came over and said, I don't see any problem with that, bring it on down. Of course, like any bureaucrat, I brought the shish kebab cart down. He wanted to look at it, and he says, uh oh, I better get my supervisor in Christiansburg to see this. Right away, I knew we had a problem. The supervisor came over and said, well, you need a sneeze guard, you need this, you need that, you need an umbrella. It was very frustrating. But I did put the shish kebab cart out around 1980, I believe, somewhere on College Avenue. Then I realized that I better find me a little place to open up the idea that I had of, calling Souvlaki.

Joe: It had the spit with the cone on it?

Chris: Exactly. No, not the cone. Just shish kebabs only. This was only a grill.


Joe: Yeah. Okay.

Chris: An outdoor grill like we have now. But mine was with charcoal and everything. It was just to put her out of the corner of College Avenue and Main Street or College Avenue and Draper Road. Sell shish kebabs during good weather and it started looking pretty good. I realized I've got to bring this thing indoor and add more Greek food. Then become really ethnic.

Joe: Is this around the same time that the Cellar menu becomes more ethnic?

Chris: A little later.

Joe: The Cellar follows a little later.

Chris: The Cellar follows a little later, much later, probably eight years later.

Joe: Because of the success of Souvlaki, or--?

Chris: I think just to put a variety in the menu. I had a hard time selling Souvlaki. It was when the people saw it was a shish kebab, whatever. But when I brought the business indoors and I located right next to Book Strings and Things 31:00where the bar is now called--

Joe: River Mill?

Chris: River Mill. And I had a spot no bigger than this, maybe eight stools and decided to sell, add gyro to the shish kebab, a gyro. Pita, add the spanakopita, the tiropita type of thing. Add baklava and a couple other things. But people actually would come into the place and they will look up at the menu and they would leave, which was very, very, very frustrating. Then my entrepreneurial mind went to work a little bit. I said, this is not going to make it. So, I would put samples on the grill of gyro, spanakopita, pork tenderloin, shish kebab chicken, filet for the chicken shish kebab, and I put a side little dish of sauce, and I said, before y'all leave, I would take a toothpick, I want you 32:00to try this. I would take gyro, and they would try the gyro and they said, oh my goodness, that's incredible, what do you do with this? I make a sandwich. You put it on a bread? And I said, I put it on a flat bread, it's called pita bread. Never heard of the word pita. And I wrapped around. I don't know how many boxes of toothpicks I've used. Literally, it was sold on a toothpick. Literally. Just like tasting something, if you like it, you come back. It was a hard sell. The other hard sell was, I couldn't find--except New York or Chicago, but mostly Chicago because there were a lot of ethnic Greeks up there--I couldn't find a food distributor to sell me pita bread and gyro. The rest, I can make myself. I can make the spanakopita, I can make the tiropita, I can make the baklava, I can make whatever. Or with the help of my wife, of course. I would call up Chicago. 33:00I want to place an order for pita and gyro. He says, we'd ship it down. Of course, I have to pay transportation costs. All the local distributors out of Roanoke and Richmond, they didn't even know what it was. Finally, I found my guy in Chicago, Kronos Foods. God bless him. He's the president of that corporation. He just died a few months back. Kronos Foods found a distributor in Lexington, Virginia. They were shipped to Lexington, and then the food distributor will send it our way. I would either go-- Charlotte was the closest place I could get pita bread, Charlotte, North Carolina, and gyro, or Chicago, or DC. I would go in my Volkswagen and get five cases of Pita bread that would last me a month maybe.

Joe: Wow.

Chris: Whatever. Finally, they did deliver to my door. I guess I was patient. I 34:00just knew this idea would work.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: But look what we've done since I've opened up Souvlaki almost forty years ago. I just started with the cart. You got Arby's selling gyro. You got pita wraps all over the place.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: No, I don't want to take credit for it, but I am! [Laughter]

Joe: You are responsible.

Chris: Who's going to go to Chicago to get a pita wrap? Who's going to go to DC or whatever? Even Charlotte, it was a grocery store where I bought those from. They had a lot of Greeks own the Greek restaurants, but not Greek menus, and slowly--

Joe: Yeah, you're right. It really has permeated now.

Chris: It is unreal. I hear it's not bad, so I don't know. But that was the old shoot of the family business, Souvlaki was. I told my partner Jim Havelos who 35:00had married Anna, my aunt. I said, I got a great idea by bringing a shish kebab cart down here from New York. I said, well, you have your son, George. I said, let's get him involved a little bit in the business. And he said, yeah, let's try it! That's when I brought shish kebab down, the cart down. Of course, since then, the family sort of died off and diminished. When we did the Cellar Restaurant, Jim says, we go downstairs, my brother in Winston-Salem, he was in the restaurant business, let's bring him and his wife so he can run The Cellar. And that's what we did. Basically in 1970, [19]71, we built the restaurant called The Mediterranean, which was a high-end food restaurant. Later on, we changed it to Greek's Two. It's right now behind Souvlaki where Sycamore Deli is 36:00now. It's a basement. That belonged to us too. Mostly it was two or three families that were involved in the family business. My first cousin, George, gets involved in a car accident, leaves him paralyzed from the waist down and later on passes away from a blood clot and that demolished the family in a way, so to speak. That was part of it. George, while he was in a wheelchair, wanted to open up his own little thing. That's why he went behind the Cellar and opened up another Greek's. But when he died, that evaporated also. It's sort of a Greek family tragedy, at times. Business, particularly restaurant business, is very tough. In any business, when you have family involved, you have disagreements, 37:00and when you have disagreements, who suffers most? It's the business. Because it doesn't move on. We had a lot of disagreements. I wanted to do this, Jim wanted to do this, I want to do that.

Joe: But they're complicated because it isn't just business decisions.

Chris: Absolutely. Then you don't want to step on anybody's toes because he's your uncle, your aunt, whatever. I'm being a little personal here so you may want to-- whatever.

Joe: That's fine.

Chris: Even when our father started the business, he was by himself, the Busy Bee restaurant. We talked about this.

Joe: We covered that.

Chris: We covered that. After college, I came into the business when my father was getting ready to retire. Then I went into business with his partner which would have been Jim. Then that's how the new Greek's became involved.

Joe: But when you were younger, when you first came to America, your father was running the business--

Chris: By himself

Joe: By himself at that point?

Chris: At that point, till Anna got married.

Joe: This is the Blue Ribbon now? Is that what it's called?


Chris: At that point, it was the Blue Ribbon restaurant. It's still known as the Greek's.

Joe: Could you describe what that experience was like? You're coming from an actively occupied, warzone country and coming to where--I don't know, you probably weren't even eating much in restaurants at all, right? [Laughter]

Chris: No, my mother did all the cooking.

Joe: You're coming to America where your father is now running a restaurant in a downtown area. I mean, just everything about it, it must have been as different an experience as one could imagine for you.

Chris: It was different. But at that point, when mother and I came over, my father had a small apartment above the Cellar building or next door, which was a shoe shop, part of a shoe shop. You remember, Joe? I know I remember.

Joe: That doesn't ring a bell.

Chris: I think there was an apartment above that, and we lived there. I grew up 39:00downtown, basically. I grew up downtown till my father found a house up on Sunset Boulevard. I think that was in 1949, 1950, that he bought that house.

Joe: You had been in a small village. Is it only one-story structures basically, with some public areas?

Chris: What? In the village, my house?

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, it was a single-family dwelling, but made with stone and ceramic tile on top. You can see old villages in Greece today that are very similar.

Joe: Did you enter school immediately?

Chris: No. I came to the United States in April, so school was already in session. My father went over to see the principal of the grade school, Mr. Federer, I believe. No, not believe. I know Mr. Federer was his name. He says, Mr. Kappas, we're going to have to wait till September to enroll Chris, it's a 40:00little late now. In the meantime, see if he can learn English and everything a little bit. That's what I tried to do. Basically, a lot of my English education came from Christ Episcopal Church going to Sunday school there. Most of the professors knew my dad really well and they liked him and he liked the school, he liked the students, and everything. They got to know each other very well. So when I came over, I think Dr. Miles, Hugh Miles, came over. Dr. Whittemore--I do not remember. Says, Mr. Kappas--Nick, nobody called him Mr. Kappas--can we take Chris to Christ Episcopal Church on Sundays for Sunday school, if that's alright with you? Of course, my father said, there was no problem at all. And that's where I learned a lot of my English in Sunday school. Then later on, in our 41:00church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the closest was in Roanoke, and that time, it was an hour and a half, two hours away. So I went regular to Christ Episcopal Church not only for Sunday school, but for church services also. But a lot of Greeks, back in those days, that didn't have a local Greek Orthodox Church, went to the Episcopal Church rather than the Roman Catholic Church, and I'll tell you why. If they went to the Roman Catholic Church, they will try to be converted to Roman Catholicism. But where there was the Episcopalians, the Church of England back in those days, they left you alone. The Church of England was very similar to the orthodox doxology, is that word? No.

Joe: Dogma?

Chris: Doxologia in Greek. Doxology.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Growing up there, I learned English, and matter of fact, by my senior year in high school, I got confirmed in the Episcopal Church by Bishop Marmion, out of Richmond, confirmed me. So I'm the only Greek Orthodox I know that's also 42:00an Episcopalian. But the Episcopal Church was very similar to the Eastern Church that I belonged to, so I learned a lot from the church there. And the professors were very nice. I grew up with their kids, and they taught me a lot. I went to first grade, and here I was, nine-years-old, three years, almost four years older than anybody else. I had to start somewhere.

Joe: Had you and/or your mother made any attempts to learn English in anticipation?

Chris: Obviously, I did.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Mother did not. She never learned to drive. My mother still kept close to her Greek heritage, and only, she picked up English as she got older. Then of course, she started to understand, she started to speak. But she kept up with her Greek friends. She made friends here in America and in Blacksburg. She was 43:00accepted. But mostly it was very difficult because of her age to get acclimated to the English language.

Joe: Well yeah.

Chris: Or to learn the English language.

Joe: I was wondering about back when you were still in Greece and anticipation of coming over.

Chris: No, no. Hitler and Mussolini did not have any--

Joe: They didn't have English classes? [Laughter]

Chris: Didn't have any of those professors. Didn't have a dental plan. Didn't have a medical plan either. [Laughter] No.

Joe: What about the--go ahead.

Chris: Again, I hate to tell you this, but I don't want to go back to Harry Truman, but if it wasn't for those guys, I'd be speaking German today, or Italian. [Laughter] We owe a lot to those people anyway. Do you have any of those?

Joe: Yeah, I was just going to say, let's take break so I can open a can of--would you like something?

Chris: Yeah. I just get my mouth a little--

Joe: Yeah, you can open one of these waters.

Chris: Can I open up this water?

Joe: Whichever one you want.

Chris: Yeah. Thank you. [Can opening] I'm getting there. [Laughter] Can you do 44:00that? [Water bottle snapping open] Oh I got it.

Joe: There it is.

Chris: Cheers. I can see now why people at the podium drink water.

Joe: Yeah. So I'm curious about your early experience with your father. You've grown up with just your mother and then you're meeting your father for the first time and now you're in his world in his home, and he's a guy you're just meeting for the first time and is now really responsible for all of the decisions that are affecting and steering your life.

Chris: I didn't know what to expect.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: That's my father? Looking at him in New York where we landed, and that's my father down there? I was in a state of-- I didn't know what state I was in. I didn't know what to expect from my dad, knowing mother all these years. I didn't 45:00know. But he proved to be not only a disciplinarian, but the disciplinarian was my mother. My dad was always talking wisdom and was nice, easy-going. He really loved Blacksburg. He loved Virginia Tech. The community slowly got to know him and who he was and they really accepted him, not because of his ethnic background, because of who he was. Again, as I got older, I'd say, okay, dad you came to Blacksburg, why did you stay? He says, the students. I love the students. Then he loved the area. A lot of the rural people, down in McCoy, down at the Ellett Valley, all these were farmers that would come to Blacksburg on a Wednesday or a Saturday, and sell their produce. A farmer's market, brought to your door. He would buy everything fresh either on a Wednesday or on a Saturday. 46:00They got to know him really well and as I got older and I got to know their children or grandchildren and says, oh, yeah, Nick, oh, my goodness, here's Nick's son. It was surprising to me how well he was known as I grew up and how respected he was. It was amazing. As one of the Virginia Tech alumni, a good friend of mine in Roanoke, when he came to my dad's funeral, made a comment says, if Mr. Nick is not in heaven, I'm not sure I want to go there. I thought that was a tribute. [Laughter]

Joe: It's nice.

Chris: But he got to know Walter Newman. He got to know everybody. He got to know a lot of people. He was very well thought of. Along those lines, as more family came into the business, that love for my dad passed onto the rest of the 47:00family, so there was no problems.

Joe: Do you sense that you feel that you have sought to emulate that, like explicitly, or is it just naturally you've taken on?

Chris: I always thought I was into the American community. Growing up with a Greek mother, Greek father who was mostly at the restaurant, Greek household. I always thought that I probably may want to marry somebody of my culture maybe. Obviously, I would want to marry somebody, maybe a Greek Orthodox. But what happened was strange that I married a girl out of Greece. If you had told me that while I was in college that I was going to marry some girl out of Greece, I'd say, you're out of your mind. Well, there were enough Greek American girls in the United States to select from, but something struck me about my wife, but 48:00that's another matter. But knowing a lot of the Greek American kids, the girls, when we were socialized in get-togethers and everything else, one of the things that really turned them off was when they asked, well, what do you do? And I say I'm in the restaurant business. That was a turn off for them, because their father was in the restaurant business, and they never saw their father. Well I'm not gonna marry somebody in the restaurant business that I'm not ever gonna see. It's a tough business.

Joe: You say you married a girl out of Greece. She was living in Greece when you met her or--?

Chris: No, she was living in New York City.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: You want to go there now?

Joe: When did she come over?

Chris: Let's see, we got married in 1971. I think she came over in 1967, [19]68.

Joe: Oh, so not too long before--

Chris: No. Not too long. She'd been there about three or four years when I first met her. But it was one of those things that happened.

Joe: So your father, though, can we step back to that?


Chris: Well, of course.

Joe: Speaking of how much he loved the community and how much the community respected him, what was your impression of how he was as a boss in the restaurant, the citizen in the community? I mean, did you see him interact with his employees and--?

Chris: Very much so.

Joe: What was his manner? How did he conduct those interactions?

Chris: Very nice. Most of his employees back then, when I came in, were from the Black community. I would say 90 percent from the Black community, from Nellies Cave Road or behind the firehouse where we had another Black community. But they just loved him to death. It was all, Mr. Nicholas, and I remember then I was growing up in the restaurant, there was, Mr. Nick this and Mr. Nick that. What else can I do? There was nothing. They just got along well. The customers were even selling alcohol beverages off-premises. We went there I think, we 50:00talked about that.

Joe: Yes, we talked about it last time.

Chris: He just got along with customers very well. He was, like I said, very well-respected. Of course, he had Greek friends in Christiansburg and Radford and Pulaski and things like that. These families were very, very close. They would get together on what the Orthodox Church called Feast Days, St. Nicholas, they would be, or Christmas, or they would all get together and everything.

Joe: Was most of the socializing you remember your family engaging in with the Greek community?

Chris: A lot of it was. Looking back, I felt at times, because my father was selling alcohol and it was off limits for the community, I felt at times I was-- I hate to use discriminate. Sort of--


Joe: But there was a--

Chris: Looked down on, maybe? But that's maybe a child's view.

Joe: And you think that was more the alcohol or more like--?

Chris: It could've been a little both.

Joe: Greek population? Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, it could've been my ethnic background or it could've been the alcohol. I don't know. Looking back now is that friends that I had a disagreement with or I picked fights with in grade school or in high school or whatever, turned out to be my best friends.

Joe: And were there other ethnic communities that you were aware of that--?

Chris: Not that I'm aware of, but we did have a couple of ethnic families. We had a Chinese family, Dr. Loh's family. When I was in, I think either tenth grade or above that grade, they came in, and I got to know them pretty well, particularly Eddie who was in my class. But we didn't have any, there was no other Greeks in Blacksburg. He was the only Greek guy in town until he brought 52:00in some people and then they left it to do their own thing. He had a difficult time originally, but he slowly, like I said, he got accepted pretty good. My situation was, I couldn't speak very well English, the kids would make fun of me. I think we've talked about this. But it was tough.

Joe: And did that last all through your school or--?

Chris: At least through high school a little bit. In college, there was no problem. Well, in college there was a problem when I got into the Corps of Cadets.

Joe: You couldn't go to your restaurant.

Chris: Did we talk about this?

Joe: Yeah. [Laughter]

Chris: We talked about this here?

Joe: Didn't we talk about that on mic? Do you remember?

Chris: I may have talked about this in my office?

Joe: Yeah, I remember the story.

Chris: The story is that my freshman year, a rat at Virginia Tech, I think it was F Company up in Rice Hall. Well the first meeting we had that evening, of 53:00course, the captain and the commander would get all the rats together with dos and don'ts and all those stuff, and at the end of his meeting, he says, oh by the way, the Greek's restaurant--do you hear a beep? Maybe my hearing aids.

Slade Lellock: What do you hear?

Chris: I hear background. I think it's my hearing aids.

Slade: Let me try to turn your headphones down just a little bit, that might help.

Chris: Let's see. Go ahead.

Joe: How's that?

Chris: Yeah, it's a little better.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: The company commander ended his talk, and he says, by the way, he says, the Greek's restaurant downtown is off limits. I'm looking at my buddies. They knew that my dad owned the restaurant. After the meeting, I go to the company commander, I say, sir. What do you need, rat? I said, I want to talk with you. He says, what about? I said, my dad owns the Greek's restaurant. I said, can I go? He says, no, it's off limits. I said, my dad owns the restaurant. He says, you're going to have to talk to General Devine--

Joe: Just to contextualize, it's because of the liquor license?


Chris: I think it was because of the liquor license, but they never really specified. It was declared off limits. And you know how my dad got that license. Remember, we talked--

Joe: Yeah, that's what we talked about last time.

Chris: But anyway, my situation was the same thing. So I went to the commandant of the cadets to get permission to go into my dad's restaurant. He passed the buck onto Dr. Walter Newman, who was the president of the university. So, here I am. He says, you have to see the President. So here I am in my white belt going up to Burruss Hall scared to death. I don't know what to expect. He says, come on in son, what do you need? I said, sir, my name is so-and-so, and my father, Nick Kappas, owns the Greek's restaurant downtown. And I said, it's off limits, I need your permission. He turns around and says, are you Nick's son? He knew my dad.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: He says, of course, who told you you can't go into your dad's restaurant? 55:00Quote unquote. Who told you you can't go into--? That's the story. It was similar to that situation where my father went to the Burruss Hall to ask permission to get his liquor license, and I thought that was symbolic.

Joe: So you had special permission to enter your father's own restaurant despite the ban--

Chris: Yeah, despite the ban.

Joe: Because of the liquor.

Chris: But that's the story of that.

Joe: How slowly did that erode for everyone else? I mean, when did it become okay to go to the Cellar?

Chris: When we opened up the Cellar. Times have changed. My father had originally an off-premise license. But later on, the license became on/off, it was your choice. So when we did the Cellar, I think I wrote a letter to the Collegiate Times then. I think it was called the Collegiate Times of Virginia 56:00Tech saying--

Joe: Somewhere in there.

Chris: Saying, we're going to sell our on premises. I think I sent it to Dr. Hahn also. I'm not sure. That's how it was. The Golden Gobbler was the only closest place and Cecil's restaurant, where 7-Eleven is at, on North Main Street, was the only place selling alcohol on-premises.

Joe: Where was the Golden Gobbler?

Chris: Oh boy, I am getting old, or you're young. The Golden Gobbler is Hubbard Street, the little incline going up where Wendy's is going up though, on the left-hand side where--what is it, a real estate firm there now?

Joe: Okay, yeah, up on the hill there by Eats.

Chris: Past Eats. I think there is a locksmith there, there's a blue truck out. Anyway, that's called the Golden Gobbler, and they were good friends of ours, 57:00Lebanese background. I think part of our family owned outposts. I do remember when we opened up the Cellar, I went up to the Golden Gobbler. I said, I don't want you guys to be offended, but we will be selling alcohol on-premises. They all said, no Chris, there's no problem, no problem at all. We were on good terms with everybody and there was nothing at all.

Joe: When did you start working at your father's restaurant?

Chris: Well, I never stopped. Between school and high school, college, I worked part-time in and out. Then I realized I'm an only child. I had a job in Richmond for a while that didn't last long. I got a call from Dad saying that Jim--I want to come back into the business or whatever, I decided to come in. And ethnic mothers have a way of making you feel guilty if you don't do what they want you to do. Now I'm having a little back--now I can hear my voice. Let's try it now.


Joe: You mean like an echo?

Chris: Uh-hm. I'm sorry.

Joe: You're getting an echo, is that what you're saying?

Chris: Yeah. I can hear my voice for some reason. I think before it was better.

Slade: Before it was better?

Chris: Say something, Joe.

Joe: How's this?

Chris: Okay. We're good now.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: Yeah. What time? We're good. I got till 3:30 at least.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: Is that all right?

Joe: Sure.

Chris: I don't want to get you guys tired.

Joe: No, whatever you want to do.

Chris: Okay. We're good.

Joe: So you're in this country, you're going to school, you're catching a little bit of flack because of your ethnic background with the other students.

Chris: And my accent.

Joe: Yeah, and your accent. But all the while, you're working for your father in the Blue Ribbon Restaurant. And what are you doing, just bussing tables or cleaning the floor, just everything?

Chris: Just a little bit of everything.

Joe: When did you start doing kitchen stuff, like making food or assisting with 59:00making the food?

Chris: When I got probably 100 percent into the business with my dad's partner Jim Havelos.

Joe: So after you came back from Richmond?

Chris: Yeah, when I came back, and then I did kitchen and outside both ways. I got a little bit of everything. From the Cellar, we expanded up to the Mediterranean, Greek's Two, and then Souvlaki came later on, but I've been in the restaurant even when you worked. When did you work for me?

Joe: I worked for you in [19]89.

Chris: Really?

Joe: Maybe something like that.

Chris: Was it on the corner where Souvlaki is now?

Joe: Where it is now, yeah.

Chris: Yeah, I was across the street before 1980, [19]82, and I think I moved to Little Docs in [19]85 or [19]87.

Joe: Little Docs is the current--

Chris: Little Docs was there.

Joe: Yeah, that was a soda fountain or something?


Chris: It was a hamburger and hot dog, a little bit of everything.

Joe: So when you were young and working for your father, was he making an explicit attempt to show you the business, or what's he--?

Chris: Not really.

Joe: Yeah?

Chris: But later on he did. How to do the cash register, how to do the books, how to do this, how to do that. And a lot of times, I wanted to go out and play too. My friends either lived on Progress Street or my Black friends were behind the firestation. There was a Black little town there. But I grew up between Main Street, Progress Street, that's it, till we moved to Sunset Boulevard. That was in 1950 something, when my dad bought a house up there from Mr. Moses Lucinian who was, his background was what? Not Lebanese. Armenian background and he was a shoe cobbler at Virginia Tech, made shoes for the Corp of Cadets. He got to be 61:00good friends with my dad because the Greeks and the Armenians have a common thing and a common enemy and that was the Turks.

Joe: In Turks, yeah.

Chris: 'Cause the Turks eliminated Armenia, two million of them. Anyway, so when my dad came over from Greece without my mother, he says, Nick, when your wife gets here and everything. When we got here, he says, I have a house up on Sunset Boulevard next door to my house that I can sell you because it's gonna be more room, more suitable for your family and everything else. Of course, when my mother saw Sunset Boulevard, she figured moving up there was like fifty miles away, but actually a mile away. She wanted to be close to downtown. But anyway, my father bought the house on a handshake with Moses Lucinian, and we were there ever since. So, I grew up in Sunset. Then I got friends up on from Sunset to Country Club Drive, met a lot of those kids up there whose parents were professors and got to know them real well.


Joe: What did you do with your friends?

Chris: Played basketball.

Joe: Yeah?

Chris: And I mowed the yards on Saturday for a couple of bucks [laughs] up on Country Club--gee whiz!--with one of those push mowers where the blink goes like this, you know. But a bunch of us would argue whose yard you gonna to mow. So, I would go ahead of time to the homeowners and say, let me do your yard next Saturday, whatever.

Joe: You mean you're competing with your friends. [Laughter]

Chris: A little bit. It was less than five dollars on a mow, and boy, those lots were big. There were no small lots available, but yeah, it was fun growing--it was good.

Joe: What would you spend that money on?

Chris: Let's see, to the Little Theater and my--

Joe: Where the Lyric is?

Chris: Absolutely not.

Joe: Where are we talking?

Chris: We had two movies in Blacksburg, the Little Theater was where Sharkey's 63:00was or Cricketts was. That was the Little Theater, and they would show Western movies only on, maybe Thursday, Friday, and Saturday only.

Joe: That's right there by the restaurant.

Chris: Right by the restaurant. And the Lyric Theater was called the Big. The Little and the Big Theater.

Joe: Oh, okay. So it wasn't just the Greek's. A lot of the businesses had nicknames.

Chris: Nicknames, absolutely! And I remember asking--not a John Wayne movie, a Tom Mix or Roy Rogers or whatever was on--I'd love to go to the Little Theater and watch it on a Friday night. And my dad says, well, you saw this movie last week, you're going to another movie again. He didn't want to give me fifty cents to go to a movie. The different thing about the Little Theater is that you could see the screen and the building sits right on top of Stroubles Creek, so you could see the rats running back and forth, I mean talking about, like, cats! 64:00Huge rats! But the Lyric Theater was the theater to go because it would show more movies, a lot better movies and everything, but most of the Westerns was showing on the other one. All I remembered is the Little and the Big, and then the Lyric. Then as I got older, my classmate, Don Kelsey, his family owned the Lyric Theater. From my father's restaurant, we would go down to the Lyric and help make popcorn, help sell tickets, and help Mr. Kelsey, go to the projection room and help a little bit up there.

Joe: You were just helping out, or this was like a job?

Chris: I was helping out, and then my junior year, my dad said you probably need to do other things than working in a restaurant. Poly Scientific opens up downtown right above Gillies, where MishMish was, the basement of--MishMish was 65:00underneath. Well, Poly Scientific was upstairs on the left-hand side where there's a church there now or a church group related thing.

Joe: The building that was Buddies and Daddy's Money.

Chris: Exactly. Poly Scientific opened up there by Jim Pandapas, who came down from New Jersey, and I got a job there three nights a week after school working till eight o'clock at night and in slip rings or something.

Joe: What were you doing?

Chris: Slip rings? Whatever Poly Scientific does now, slip rings or whatever--

Joe: I don't know.

Chris: I was working on a lathe, cutting--

Joe: So you're manufacturing?

Chris: I'm manufacturing. So I'm between the Lyric, my dad's restaurant, and Poly Scientific, I was a little busy. It was okay. [Laughter]

Joe: What was that Little Theater like? Was that the same building?

Chris: The same building.


Joe: What was the orientation of it? Was the screen--?

Chris: The screen, as you're going straight back. I haven't been there in a while. There's been several businesses in there, the last one being Sharkey's because they moved next door. I think just recently, just to bring you up to date, I think just recently, it's been sold to a Mariano family out of Roanoke and is supposed to be an Asian upscale restaurant, but I don't know. But anyway, it's quite an old building. If you look at it, the next door to the Little Theater was Preston Hotel where Sharkey's is now on the corner. That was a hotel. Anyway, the thing I remember about that, living above the shoe shop, above the Cellar Restaurant when I first came into town, this was early [19]50s, I think? We had the bus stop, where Hokie House is now. The bus came in at three or four o'clock, the bus driver went into the terminal, left his brake off. The 67:00bus rolled all the way down, front of the Greek's, and hit the Preston Hotel into the lobby straight in,

Joe: Oh, man.

Chris: Four o'clock in the morning. Thank God there was nobody in the bus and nobody in the lobby. So you could see half of the bus sticking out in front of the restaurant, practically.

Joe: So you heard a crash and ran to the window?

Chris: Oh yeah, I ran out the door, the window, and said, what's going on here? It was incredible. Mother was scared to death, she didn't know what was going on. [Laughter]

Joe: Flashing back to the war, probably.

Chris: Oh my goodness gracious! But I don't know what ever happened. Why the bus driver would leave the brake off, I don't know. Anyway, but it was a Trailways bus.

Joe: That hill. [Laughter]

Chris: Oh yeah, it's straight down! [Laughter] Don't forget too that we remodeled all that, but most of the traffic went to the right, going up a lot.


Joe: You're saying that that curve in front of the Celler was the Main Street?

Chris: Was the Main Street at one time and then Virginia Tech gave them permission to go straight up, because that was Virginia Tech territory. I remember the brick fence that went up on College Avenue. It went all the way up to Main Street.

Joe: Really?

Chris: The main entrance to Virginia Tech was going up to the campus, where they cut the sycamore tree down, there were steps going up to the right of the sycamore.

Joe: There on Henderson Lawn you're talking about.

Chris: Henderson Lawn, exactly. That was the main entrance to Virginia Tech. So we've covered a lot of stuff today.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Maybe.

[End of interview]