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´╗┐Joe Forte: My name is Joe Forte. I'm conducting an interview of Chris Kappas in Newman Library, Room 126. The date is August 31st, and it's just after 2:00 p.m.. Chris is narrating an oral history about restaurants he and his family owned and managed in town, local history, and the Greek community in Blacksburg and the New River Valley. This is the fourth session in our series.

Chris Kappas: You know what we forgot to do today?

Joe: What?

Chris: I haven't signed the form.

Joe: I know. I was thinking about that when I was putting my food away.

Chris: But my wife wants to attend one of the sessions, so I'm gonna give you--her name is Maria Kappas, so I'm sure she's gonna have to sign that too.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: But I'll tell you when she's coming.

Joe: Okay. Yeah, we'll sign the form when we finish.

Chris: Absolutely.

Joe: Yeah, I have it in my office.

Chris: All right.

Joe: Or rather, it's here and I have to print it out, but we'll do it. [Laughter] I'm sorry, it's been a bit of a crazy morning, but that's not part of 1:00the oral history. Okay, so, it's been a bit of time since we met because we had to change our date.

Chris: Yeah.

Joe: It's almost, now, been two weeks. What we had left off talking about is, we started to get into--and we can always come back and fill in gaps about your father and the older part of the story--but we were into the narrative where you are now running the restaurant with your partner Jim Havelos.

Chris: Absolutely.

Joe: We talked about the pushcarts and how it becomes Souvlaki across the different locations on the corner of College Avenue and Draper Road. We also started talking a little bit more broadly about the town of Blacksburg and what else was happening downtown and how it was to run a business downtown during 2:00this time. And we're in the [19]70s now when you're opening Souvlaki. Is that correct?

Chris: Somewhere in there, yeah. Late [19]60s, early [19]70s.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: Because I was married in [19]71, so it had to be late [19]60s.

Joe: Okay, so it was just before your marriage?

Chris: Yeah, yeah. But, go ahead.

Joe: I was thinking we could back up to when you became a principal partner in the original restaurant, and starting there and moving through the establishment of Souvlaki and then your time there. We talked a little bit about what your role was. You did some front of the house with Jim's wife, correct? You guys ran it, and we talked about your customer experience, but I'd like to back up to you entering and fill that in a bit more.

Chris: About the old Greeks--?

Joe: The old place, the new place.

Chris: When I joined Jim Havelos?


Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Because he was already a partner with my father.

Joe: Right. But I'm now interested in your experience as, I don't know what you think of as your citizenship, I guess, as a member of the Blacksburg downtown community and how that developed and evolved through your running of the restaurant, through the deepening of your engagement with the community. Then we'll contextualize that with how you observed the town changing, that kind of stuff. Does that sound good?

Chris: It sounds good. When we first came in with mother, we lived above Harley Shoe Store and the barbershop which was next door to the Greeks. My father had an apartment there. And not knowing the English language, it was difficult. I came in in April and had to start school in September. Of course, we talked over this, the principal started me in the first grade. I was nine years old, about 4:00three or four years older than everybody else, maybe not four, but anyway. I remember some of the neighborhood children on Progress Street. I got to know them real well. The family of Dr. Furtsch who used to teach chemistry at Virginia Tech, I grew up with his children, Tom. They lived on Progress Street.

Joe: Progress Street is one block off Main, just behind the apartment you're living in above what is now the Cellar.

Chris: Yes, exactly. There were the Ballengee children. He worked at the post office. They were twins and a sister, and they all took me under their wing. I was about their age, and just growing up with some of those children, very 5:00helpful. They were just trying to bring me along to make me feel wanted. I hung around with some of the Black children that were above what is now the firehouse. There was a Black community there, the Wade's. I believe the name Richard Wade, I see him still occasionally, we talk about the old days. It was slowly getting into school and trying to adjust myself with the English language and trying to just learn what people already knew ahead of me. I had no formal school education in Greece because of the war. There was absolutely nothing like that. I may have had some learning disabilities, from what I've learned later on in my life, that it was hard to grasp certain things. Along with some of the 6:00other town fellows, Dean Miles and Dean Whittemore who were good friends with my dad, took me to Christ Episcopal Church on Sundays and to Sunday school, and of course, they asked my father's permission, and he had no objection at all. But basically, I did grow up downtown, and as I got older, my English got better, but I still had an accent. Some people still made fun of me. Some of my fellow students made fun. Maybe they call it bullying now, I don't know, but we'd learn how to defend ourselves. We took that, as I got older, part of the learning process. It was not easy. But reflecting back, maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought. I can't imagine growing up anywhere other than downtown Blacksburg. 7:00Then, somewhere along the line, before I finished high school in 1949, 1950, my father bought a house up on Sunset Boulevard from an Armenian fellow, Moses Lucinian, and it was a little difficult for mother to get used to that because we were so far away, it was actually a mile. Mother never learned how to drive. But my high school years were spent up on Sunset Boulevard and Cohee Road, Country Club Drive. Met other friends there, from what I remember.

Joe: Yeah. Then you attended college here and then you moved to Richmond to do some work.

Chris: Did some work. I don't know, maybe I wanted to get away from home for a 8:00while. I did go to Richmond, worked for Virginia Electric Power Company for only about a year or so, and then I came back home because my dad was--Jim, matter of fact, was ready to make some moves in the restaurant. I can't say enough for Jim and Anna Havelos that they welcomed me back, not into the business, but they welcomed me back home. Extraordinary good people. Slowly, my father would just retire and then we took over the business. When you say that I was a principal owner, don't like the word principal. I think Jim and I were even owners.

Joe: Oh, yeah. I didn't mean it as a hierarchy.

Chris: And Jim taught me a lot. He was in the army, he was a chef in the army, and he taught me a lot about the restaurant business. I learned a lot from his own hands type of thing. I got involved in the kitchen and out front. But Anna 9:00was the principal lady who really attracted the local customers and befriended a lot of people, and she was the catalyst upfront in the old days that you needed somebody to greet the customers, and everybody just simply loved Anna. She was just tremendous influence on me and tremendous influence on the business.

Joe: Just to review, then, the name now--

Chris: I'm sorry?

Joe: The name of the restaurant.

Chris: Then, it was still the Blue Ribbon.

Joe: It's still the Blue Ribbon.

Chris: It's still called, unofficially, the Greeks.

Joe: It's still upstairs.

Chris: Still upstairs. We did remodel upstairs and took--at one time, the second part of the building may have been a pool room or a flower shop, I don't 10:00remember. When Jim and I decided to remodel, we decided to go with both sides and then called the restaurant the Greeks, and it's what everybody else was calling it for generations.

Joe: Now I remember reopening the upstairs at the Cellar when I was an undergrad here. I came to town--

Chris: But the upstairs was already open.

Joe: Well, what I'm saying is, there was Our Daily Bread. Was there Old Man of The Sea there?

Chris: No, Our Daily Bread. At one time, when Sam and Dina downstairs decided to retire at the Cellar, Jim and I were not sure what we wanted to do. So, Our Daily Bread rented it for a short period of time, and the Cellar was still going on down. It was still going on, I think. But that didn't last too long, and then we did the Greeks all over again till Kevin Long took over and renamed it the 11:00Cellar Restaurant.

Joe: So, Kevin renamed it the Cellar?

Chris: Kevin renamed it the Cellar Restaurant, mainly because the Greeks were really not involved anymore. But you still have alumni that come in. Now, I still call it the Greeks. We still have all kinds of posters up there coming from the old days, the Greeks restaurant, the Greek Cellar. I guess that experience is slowly gonna die away as we all disappear. But of course, the new people coming in now, they don't know it as the Greeks. They know it simply as the Cellar Restaurant. But the Cellar Restaurant--Anna and I were upstairs one day and she says, wouldn't be a great idea to do a Greek taverna downstairs? A Greek tavern. Some of what they have in Athens at the foot of the Parthenon, the foot of the Acropolis, which was very popular back there in Athens. Then a 12:00friend of ours who had just come into town in the architecture department, Olivio Ferrari, we told him about it and he designed the solar when Olivio came out.

Joe: The interior of the downstairs part of the Cellar.

Chris: The downstairs only. The upstairs was functioning 100 percent. It proved to be very, very, very popular.

Joe: So what was that? Was that your storage area?

Chris: It was just an empty slab of concrete and iron beams going back and forth, six beams matter of fact. He looked at it. It turns supply slides on. There was no electricity down there, and when you were going to have a water problem, we're about two or three feet from the water table. We've taken care of those.

Joe: The interior, was it after the remodel--

Chris: Of the Cellar?

Joe: Yes.

Chris: Yeah.


Joe: The downstairs, yeah, or the establishment rather. Was it pretty much as it is today except for the bar?

Chris: The bar is enlarged. The only difference is the bar and some of the pictures. The pictures at the old Cellar were all of Blacksburg. Unfortunately, we put those pictures in particle board that disintegrated, and the new owner--we just could not salvage them. But there were pictures of downtown, there were pictures of Virginia Tech in the bygone years, and Main Street. I wish we would've saved those pictures, but we just couldn't do it. Our number one thing was lasagna and pizza and pasta, spaghetti. There was lines all the way down to the Hokie House--not the Hokie House, I'm sorry, the Argabrights, where now Sharkeys is, down to the light crossing the street there. It was very 14:00popular. It was an eye-opener for us. That's why Jim suggested that we get his brother in from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and his wife, Dina, and manage the restaurant, which they did in just a fantastic way.

Joe: The other downstairs one, where Sycamore is now?

Chris: That was another family that was there. That was a John and Mary Dritselis. But that was in 1971, I think.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: We expanded. We thought that an upscale restaurant--we may have talked about this--we thought--

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Maybe an upscale restaurant would do downtown Blacksburg, we would call the Mediterranean. But I think we were really, really ahead of our time. It was wonderful, and then we just changed it to something similar to what the Cellar is today.

Joe: Yeah. You talked about how you had the old pictures of old Blacksburg in the Cellar. What was the decor upstairs like?


Chris: The what?

Joe: The decor upstairs, like pictures on the wall or other things like that?

Chris: Nothing, just simple.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: If you go into Joe's Diner today, which used to be the College Inn, similar to what, exactly similar to what that was. I wish I had pictures. I may have pictures. I don't know. We're going to show you sometimes.

Joe: Yeah I'd like to see those.

Chris: Originally, my father had an open grill at the front before even Jim came into the business. He had like Souvlaki is now, but he had chili upfront, hot dogs, hamburgers, and did all the cooking.

Joe: Was there a lunch counter running?

Chris: There was a lunch counter away from the window all the way back to the kitchen. They prepped everything in the kitchen and then we'd bring it up in the front. He had a hotplate upfront, and you could see the hamburgers. I just wish I had kept his recipe for chili. It was absolutely incredible.

Joe: You haven't been able to reproduce it?

Chris: Goodness gracious. I wish! Some of the meatloaf and just good old 16:00southern dishes is basically what my dad had. But no Greek dishes. It was foreign to the locals here.

Joe: Speaking of Greek dishes, if we can move over to Souvlaki for a bit.

Chris: Sure.

Joe: We've talked previously about how that came to be, the pushcart and all that, and then moving inside, then moving across the street, introducing the gyro and stuff. That's where I'd like to go is, like, you talked about the folks who were resistant a little bit and they had to be convinced of the value of this new cuisine you were introducing and the supply and all that. But speaking of interior decoration and a couple other things, there are some things that occurred to me about Souvlaki that I wanted to ask you about. First, I've always pronounced it, and I did when I worked there, "yee-ro", right?

Chris: Um-hm.

Joe: Now, when you were speaking of it, you used that term but almost every time 17:00you say, the "jeye-roh". What do you consider to be?

Chris: I did my best to educate people on the correct pronunciation of the "yee-ros". But when they saw the spelling, it was always jeye-roh. It has nothing to do with the meat whatsoever. Gyros in Greek means to turn. It's a rotisserie machine. It just turns and cooks the lamb, it cooks the meat, whatever. That's where you get the word gyros from.

Joe: So it could be any meat.

Chris: It could be any meat, exactly. But when I first did the Souvlaki, it was a combination of ground beef and ground lamb on the rotisserie machine. But to a lot of people, they would call them "jeye-rohs" and they still do.

Joe: Now, do I remember, did you have a sign pushing the correct pronunciation?

Chris: I had a sign with Y-E-E-R-O-S, something like this.

Joe: I was thinking about the signs in the restaurant, and some of them survive today, and I was wondering about the origins of some of them. For example, you 18:00can't complain about the service at Souvlaki because there isn't any. [Laughter] I get it. How did that come about?

Chris: That came about from a friend of mine. I guess I had opened it up and he walked in and gave me a hard time. He walked in, a real estate guy, name is Tim Garrison, worked for Wayne's Real Estate, just a funny guy. He walked into Souvlaki one day, hey, Chris, how you doing? [Mumbles], I said, what? Obviously, you can't complain about the service around here. I mean, where is it? That stayed with me a little bit and I made fun of my employees a little bit. Of course, that's not true, they do work.

Joe: It's an ironic joke.

Chris: Well, you worked hard.

Joe: I tried to. [Laughter] I'm glad you think so.

Chris: But that was a play on things. The other thing was the gyros was a pita wrap. Of course, now pita wraps are all over the country, and I'm not sure I had 19:00anything to do with that, but I know I had something to do with it in the East Coast. But the way we wrapped it, it was difficult to get to, to eat. I would tell people, peel it back, don't unwrap it. Somebody, one of the art students made a little T-shirt of a little girl peeling her bathing suit down.

Joe: Oh yeah, I remember that.

Chris: And it said, peel it back, don't unwrap it. Some of the ladies were a little offended by that. But that's okay. But one of my biggest problems was when I saw people unwrapping the sandwich and it just falling apart like popcorn. If anything bothered me about my employees was, you gotta tell your customer how to proceed and eat this thing in a comfortable manner without messing it all over the place. People will order a souvlaki, whether there was a pork or a chicken, and souvlaki in Greek is a generic name meaning shish kebab 20:00really. They would try to get a spoon and just try to push all the meat down. I said, no, no, start with the first piece of meat at the bottom, push that down, and the rest will come just push the rest of them down. It was like a course in Eating 101.

Joe: There was that other sign that said, peel it, don't unwrap.

Chris: Peel it, don't unwrap.

Joe: As a customer, and I remember as an employee, those of us working, we would always set the gyro down and then rip it.

Chris: Rip it up. Get the customers, get them started a little bit.

Joe: In my own personal experience, I just accepted it as gospel and conformed to the suggestion of the sign. But now I got to admit, I unwrap it and eat it like a taco.

Chris: Do you unwrap it? [Laughter] I'm gonna fire you. [Laughter]

Joe: I don't know. Is that sign still up? Do you know?


Chris: I'm not sure. I think it is. I'm not sure. But it was an experience. Actually, Souvlaki taught me a lot of things after having been involved with larger restaurants with the family. I used to tell, not my competitors, my fellow restaurateurs in Blacksburg, that if there's anything Souvlaki has taught me is that you don't have to be big to make a good profit or good money. If I can grow some million dollars a year and put $250,000 in my pocket, that's pretty good money, but I've worked for that. But if I can gross half a million dollars a year and put $250,000 in my pocket, I would've worked a little less harder. A lot of people in Blacksburg who have owned restaurants have never forgotten that. But you don't have to be--but it's hard work. Restaurants are 22:00hard work, you know that.

Joe: Did you come upon that belief then? Because it seems like there were periods where you were seeking to grow or opening up different restaurants, this and that. There was this momentum toward growth.

Chris: It was. Located on the corner where Little Doc's was and of course Souvlaki is now, it was a much bigger space. Where I was next door to Books, Strings, and Things, where the bar is now, the--what do you call it? The Rivermill, I was in their little space where they have their kitchen now, I think that's what they have, anyway. I bought the space from Little Doc's, Doc Sinclair, lived in Pearisburg, Virginia, and he was ready to retire, and we worked out a deal where I would move into the space. But when I looked at the space, I said, it was just too big, I thought at the time. Then remodeling and 23:00cutting the space in half and renting it to another shop next door called Softcovers, one of the guys said, you're making a mistake here, I would keep the whole space. And I probably should have kept the whole space. But going from a seven, eight stool space to a bigger space, I thought that was big enough and then I could rent the other half. But anyway, we live and learn. The other thing too, is that I've had opportunities to franchise, but as I mentioned before, growing up in the restaurant business, the old way is that I figured that if I wasn't there, it wasn't going to work out. I had a financial background to do Souvlaki, but I said, maybe not.

Joe: Now there's a Souvlaki in Radford. Is that Mike?

Chris: Yes, Mike has decided to expand to Radford.

Joe: That didn't happen while you were?


Chris: No, that was his venture. I had looked at Radford several times, and I knew that it would be a good spot, but it would have to be near the campus. I believe it's called Tyler Avenue next to the campus. I think of a bar called BT's up there. Well, there's a lot of little specialty shops up there, and they were all full. I could never find the space in there. But no, the Souvlaki in Radford is all Mike Buchanan's venture, not mine.

Joe: It sounds like you did do a little bit of research.

Chris: I did a lot of research. You almost have to see where the people are. You know the old story about location, location, location, that hasn't changed much, not much.

Joe: Speaking of location, you said it was Doc's, and then you moved in there and immediately split it and rented half to Softcovers was the first to come in there?

Chris: Softcovers was the first to come in there.


Joe: But you didn't own the space. Were you subleasing half of the space you were renting?

Chris: I'd leased the whole space from the landlord, and Softcovers was paying me half the rent. That's the way it worked.

Joe: I remember Softcovers. I really loved that place.

Chris: Everybody loved them.

Joe: They moved over to where Benny Marzano's is.

Chris: Yes, somewhere there.

Joe: In that building with the--

Chris: I'm trying to think of who owned Softcovers. There was some bad news, business news for me, is that he fell behind on the rent for me, for some reason. Either he went bankrupt or left town, and that held me back from about $30,000 that I have to pay the landlord.

Joe: This is before moving out of there, or is it a different person?

Chris: Yeah, he left and then we rented it to the Greenhouse, that it is now. Yes, that's what it is. Real nice people. They rent directly from the landlord, 26:00not from Mike Buchanan.

Joe: But Softcovers moved before.

Chris: They moved, I forgot where.

Joe: Well, they moved--

Chris: Yeah, they moved to that little house, that little pizza house--

Joe: --to that freestanding building in that little motel place.

Chris: Exactly. I'd forgotten that. You're right.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: You got a better memory than I do.

Joe: I still go there all the time. Speaking of Softcovers, was it their window or was it always the Souvlaki window that had the graveyard?

Chris: No, Souvlaki window did not have the graveyard. Little Doc's had the graveyard.

Joe: Oh so it goes back to that.

Chris: It goes back to that. When we--

Joe: Could you first explain what it is?

Chris: The graveyard?

Joe: Yeah, and then we can talk about [Laughter] your decision to keep it going.

Chris: The graveyard. Little Doc came up with the idea. I don't know where he got it from, to put a graveyard up there for all the football games that we have 27:00that Virginia Tech plays. We put a headstone up for each opponent, whether there was home or away. If [Virginia] Tech won, he would put just a score up, saying [Virginia] Tech won. If [Virginia] Tech lost, he would bury the hole. There would be a hole next to the headstone. He would bury it with sand.

Joe: Wait, I thought it was the other way around. Am I wrong? I thought they buried the defeated opponent.

Chris: No.

Joe: Maybe I'm misremembering.

Chris: Wait a minute, hold on. We buried the defeated opponent with no comment.

Joe: Okay.

Chris: Then there was like. Yeah, if we lost, then we'd put the score up again with some comment as to why we lost.


Joe: All right, some little funny.

Chris: Some little funny, little thing like that. If we lost more games, but hopefully we never were offensive to the athletic department of the football team. But when we went to the national championship with Florida State and Michael Vick, quarterback, there were several articles written about either USA Today, the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Joe: This is in the early [19]90s, right?

Chris: About the graveyard.

Joe: Late [19]90s or early 2000s.

Chris: Whenever we played Florida, we would play them down at the Atlanta, I think, for the National Championship, and we lost. But there were several newspapers, and everybody wanted to know. Had a call from people in California who were getting ready to go to Hawaii, reading about us in the USA today, about Souvlaki and the graveyard.


Joe: So in the national press coverage of that championship game, you're saying they did some local color and it included this tradition?

Chris: Yes.

Joe: Interesting. Did someone interview you or--?

Chris: The only person that interviewed was the sports editor with Richmond Time-Dispatch, then USA Today picked that up from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, as far as I can recall.

Joe: That's great.

Chris: It is still popular. Mike Buchanan, the owner of Souvlaki, does not change that until after Steppin' Out, our outdoor festival, and it's up there, the new graveyard is up now. Even during graduation in May or graduation in December, students, with their gowns and their parents, will come down to Souvlaki to take a picture next to the graveyard. Of course, one of my biggest 30:00desires was to get Frank Beamer up there and take a picture.

Joe: I was going to ask, did you ever get any attention from the program itself?

Chris: No, not really. We haven't.

Joe: So you never got the picture with Frank Beamer?

Chris: I never got the picture with Frank Beamer. But we're still alive. Maybe it's not too late. Maybe if he hears about this, he will come up and get it. But Foster's son worked there for a while, for Mike Buchanan, not me. But I always thought that was a great idea, but it is, I liked to have gotten the whole college, either players or coaches to take pictures of that. It would mean a lot to downtown, not only to Souvlaki downtown, and to the program itself.

Joe: It's a little institution.

Chris: I wish it was my idea, the graveyard, but it was somebody else's idea. Matter of fact, I even, when I mentioned it to the newspaper guy at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the story is, I said, Doc, do you mind--Doc Sinclair--do you 31:00mind if we retain the graveyard, and he teared up on me. It was a very emotional thing. But I think he may have gotten it from--I don't know where he got it from.

Joe: But he started it.

Chris: Yes.

Joe: Yeah, these little institutions that define the character of the town.

Chris: Where the Baptist Church is now was four houses up there, and walking down Main Street, you had the Sports Center where Mike's Grill was. It was known as the Sports Center, and a lot of the athletes would go up there. It was owned by Orville and Jeanette Hamlin. They were local Blacksburg, and their daughter owns the building now. Next door to that was Cook's Dry Clean Center, or Cleaners.


Joe: So Sports Center is the name of a restaurant. Is that correct? It's where Mike's Grill was just until recently.

Chris: The Sports Center was the official name of the restaurant. For further on out, where 7/11 is on North Main Street, was a place called Cecil's, and they had a license to sell beer and wine, I believe. Then when we came in with the Cellar, we were the only place in town that could sell, besides off-premises, to exercise our own license. Then going down from those Sports Center, we had the other restaurant was The Bus Stop where the Hokie House is now.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: When you came in, was that The Bus Stop then?

Joe: I think it was called the Hokie House then.

Chris: Hokie House. Well, The Bus Stop was called The Bus Stop because that's where Trailblazer would stop and pick passengers.

Joe: Right. You told us this story about when the bus rolled down the hill--

Chris: Yes I forgot I told you about that. That war was up. And then following 33:00that from the way down to the Greek's, and then up on Main Street, there was a restaurant above to the right-hand side of the post office, I don't remember who owned that. I think there's a tattoo parlor there now.

Joe: Down there where Cobblestone Cooks used to be?

Chris: Yeah. Then coming on the other side, there was The College Inn towards Joe's Diner or whatever it's called now. Of course, where Souvlaki is now, before Little Doc's was there, there was a diner there called Meredith's Diner.

Joe: Really?

Chris: Yes, a real dining car. They did similar stuff to what my dad did at the old Greek's. I think it was just closer to campus.

Joe: You talked about reaching out to at least one restaurant owner when you were changing your liquor licensing, we're gonna do in-house. I'm curious, what other kinds of things characterize your relationship with other restaurant 34:00owners and other business owners?

Chris: They were very good besides Cecil's, which is out of the corporation by the Town of Blacksburg, the Golden Gobbler was out of the corporation of the Town of Blacksburg, it was on South Main, right across the street from South Main Auto where there's a--

Joe: Yes, where the locksmith is now.

Chris: The locksmith, exactly. That's the building where the Golden Gobbler was.

Joe: Oh, yeah, okay.

Chris: They were of Lebanese background. Some of their relatives also owned the Outpost Restaurant out on Route 11 out in Christiansburg. Well, anyway, they were good friends. Then when we decided to exercise our own and we did the Cellar, I went out there and talked to people and they said, Chris, do whatever you need to do, we have no problem. All of the restaurants, oh my goodness, I can't--I don't know of anybody that we did not get along with, not only me, but 35:00my family.

Joe: The same for other downtown merchants. Was there some formal Chamber of Commerce?

Chris: No. I was instrumental, being part of that with some of the other merchants, in organizing the downtown merchants of Blacksburg, and we would meet at the Cellar Restaurant or at the Greek's once a month, I think. Wes Argabright was head of that, I was head of a bunch of merchants, and that was for some reason, we came up with, let's do an outdoor festival in downtown Blacksburg. What are we gonna call it? Somebody says, call it--not Steppin' Out--Deadwood Days! Before it became Steppin' Out--

Joe: This became Steppin' Out?

Chris: That became Steppin' Out. Unfortunately, either the first year or the second year of the Deadwood Days, there was some kind of a crime committed. 36:00Somebody had abducted somebody. I don't remember where they shot him outside of town, I don't know what happened, but we decided that Deadwood Days is not a good name.

Joe: Where did that come from? What does it mean, Deadwood Days?

Chris: From South Dakota, North Dakota? I don't know! [Laughter] Some hippy came up with it. Yeah, a bunch of hippies back then. Long hair, boots, whatever. [Laughter]

Joe: Gotcha [Laughter]

Chris: That did not last long, and then Steppin' Out was formed.

Joe: What year was that, that all began?

Chris: Huh?

Joe: What year was that, the first festival?

Chris: Early [19]70s? I'm sure we can find it somewhere. I'm sure the downtown lady, whoever has it now, would know. We closed off Main Street, just College Avenue, and I was the only food vendor out there with my shish kebab cart back then.


Joe: Which you still had in the basement or something?

Chris: Yeah, I had it somewhere, in my garage somewhere or wherever it was. [Laughter]

Joe: Why do that? What was the conversation around, hey, let's do a festival? What was that like?

Chris: Because downtown business just dries up in the summertime. Anything to attract business, and I think that was the motivation. There were not that many students going to summer school back then. But we just decided that we needed to draw people downtown to see who we are. Then it started out small, really small, not very many--we're just the local merchants that put their ware out the front door. Then slowly it has become what it is now. Very big.

Joe: So it started out just like a sidewalk sale, and--

Chris: Yeah, exactly.

Joe: Then there is, also in the summer, the International Festival. That must be 38:00later. Is that something that came out of the merchants?

Chris: The International Festival came out of the Cranwell International House. They decided to do a festival in front of Squires or maybe before the new Squires were built, I don't remember. I went down and looked at it, and I said, my goodness, what a great idea! The day after that, I don't remember what year it was, the day after that, I go up to the Cranwell House and talked to the director of the international students. I said, you guys have got something tremendous here. Why don't you share it with the community of the Blacksburg, downtown community? I said, why don't we come downtown and do an international Greek festival? She looked at me like I was crazy-- and that's what happened. We got together with the international students, the director, talked to the Town of Blacksburg to block off the streets for the dates, and it was absolutely 39:00marvelous. I was a little disappointed this past year when they had it because they had just food trucks come in doing international food, but would not let the international students do it. Joe, I'm not sure what happened. I heard that they had a problem with the Health Department. They stepped in somehow. They were concerned about some of the international students were not doing the proper taking care of food. But that's what I heard. I don't know 100 percent. But I remember, one of the years, the International Student Festival was going on pretty strong. I was at Souvlaki. Here come down about eight or ten college students, fraternities or sororities, but anyway, they looked like they were having a good time the night before, and right next to Souvlaki, we had a hot dog place called Joe's Hotdogs--what was the name of that place?


Joe: Steve's Hotdogs, or Bo-Jo's? One of those, yeah.

Chris: Yes, Steve's Hotdogs.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Steve's Hotdogs. They come on down, and they're looking around, they don't know what to do. Now, some go in to get a hot dog. I said, wait a minute. I go in to see his hot dogs, which I knew the owner. You know me. [Laughter] I say, hey guys, you got food from all over the world at your front door. At your front door. Whatever you want, and you are having a hot dog? Boy, did they cuss me out. [Laughter] You don't take much from me.

Joe: You entered a business and tried to dissuade its customers? [Laughter]

Chris: Maybe I got them at the door, I don't know. [Laughter] But I'm saying, wake up here!

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Sure, everybody loves a hot dog once in a while. But you have all kinds of other stuff out here. Lebanese, whatever we got.


Joe: Yeah, I remember those hot dog places. It was Steve's and there was Bo-Jo's. There was always a really cheap hot dog and really cheap pitchers of beer.

Chris: Yeah, it was something else. But one other time, International Festival again, another very smart student decides to steal one of the flag poles.

Joe: Steal one of the flags of the--

Chris: Flags for the international students.

Joe: Gotcha.

Chris: I see him climbing the light post, taking the flag away. So I'm taking off my apron, and I go out of Souvlaki, I'm chasing him up on Henderson Lawn. He drops the flag and I say, stop, don't do that! I was hollering. What is the flag that he dropped? Flag of Greece. [Laughter] I had no idea.

Joe: You didn't know which one he was stealing?

Chris: No, I was just bothered! [Laughter]

Joe: That's funny.

Chris: I thought it was funny when somebody brought it to my attention. 42:00[Laughter] Of course, I knew it was the flag of Greece after I saw it on the ground, but I never caught the guy. But God, it just upset me. [Laughter]

Joe: Yeah, interesting move.

Chris: Oh my goodness gracious. It's crazy.

Joe: You brought the International Festival into the downtown?

Chris: I brought the International Festival to downtown. I did not think of the International Festival, but I was instrumental in bringing it downtown. I hope that they will let the students do their thing again. Did you go this past year? They had it at the parking lot across from Squires.

Joe: I think I missed it this year.

Chris: Another thing they had was selling rugs or selling beads or something.

Joe: So you're saying it didn't come down the street?

Chris: No. They had five or six food trucks there for international food from a food truck. That's not the same thing. I don't know what happened, but I'm not a player anymore. I don't follow things as much as I used to.

Joe: Do you miss being in the center of things downtown as you used to be?


Chris: Tremendously. I miss it very much.

Joe: I still see you hanging around downtown.

Chris: That's because downtown blood is in our veins, I guess. But we were instrumental in the remodeling of College Avenue, making it pedestrian friendly.

Joe: You mean the recent--

Chris: The recent College Ave, yes, absolutely. We were instrumental in that. I'd like to think I was part of that. Of course, it took the town a while to get it all together, and they finally did. It's such a joy to come to downtown, to College Avenue, on a beautiful day where we've had recently fall, spring, summer, whatever, and to see all the people sitting outside, eating, enjoying themselves.

Joe: It's very nice.

Chris: Very European. I hope I was instrumental in that. And it worked out fine, 44:00and the Town of Blacksburg really cooperated with us, but it took them a while.

Joe: In this stuff that you tried to do, and what the merchants did, I mean, you talked about the festival because it helps with slow business time in summer. But it seems like there's also this sense of, like, developing a specific kind of character around the downtown. Is that true?

Chris: Absolutely. We don't want to lose that character. Even with new developments coming in, downtown should not lose its character. It has something to offer. Instead of emphasizing that, let's get more retail and more retail, which is good, let's get specialty stores downtown. Recently, we've had the T.R. Collectibles that opened up downtown, Sugar Magnolia that just opened up within the last month owned by the same people. Little specialty shops that do their 45:00own thing. We don't need a TJ Maxx or we don't need a Lowes or whatever. And I think that adds to the character of downtown. Someone says, Blacksburg is a special place. It really is a special place. I think what we did with College Avenue has added to that character. Even with new developments discussed recently with Blacksburg Middle School and all that, hopefully all this will add to the downtown character.

Joe: You seem to be advocating for favoring mom-and-pops, right? Was there often or ever an explicit attempt to exclude franchises, fast food, stuff like that?

Chris: On my part, you mean?

Joe: On the part of the merchants, other folks who would want to keep the McDonald's out of downtown and things like that?


Chris: No. There was never anything like that.

Joe: Okay, so there was nothing--?

Chris: No. They have their purpose. There was nothing. I emphasize mom-and-pop, because they add the character to that little store, to that little specialty shop, to Souvlaki, to the Greek's, to Joe's or whatever.

Joe: But there was never any zoning or anything that attempted to--?

Chris: No. That would be very anti-business. I would never approve of something like that. Come on in, do whichever. Sure, they hurt mom-and-pop. Look what the Walmarts and whatever they've done to the small merchants, I mean. But that's where I think downtowns are coming back, in my opinion, with these little specialty stores. I remember talking to Dr. Charles Steger, God rest his soul. 47:00We were at the airport in Roanoke waiting for our children to come either for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we had a moment to chat. This was several years ago. He says, downtowns are going to come back, and I think having nice apartments downtown, nice stores, will attract more people. I'm looking at Charlottesville, what they've done, Chapel Hill, my son went to graduate school there. Blacksburg, in a way, is catching up with those college communities. There's nothing, with outside malls, there's nothing wrong with that. But we don't want to lose the character of our downtown.

Joe: You think the recent multi-use development where there's more residential loft coming in above what's meant to be business space and some offices, you 48:00think this is all a good direction?

Chris: I think it's a great direction. I think Steve Hill, who I remember as a student of Virginia Tech, he did the Clay Court development, and recently he did the development of the old National Bank of Blacksburg building where Sugar Magnolia is and--

Joe: A few lofts in the back--

Chris: Lofts upstairs, the Lyric lofts upstairs and--

Joe: Brownstone.

Chris: Absolutely, and they're all full! At the Cellar building, we have two offices, and up by my office, we have three small apartments, and they're in demand. 'Cause college students want to live downtown, they want to live maybe where the action is? I don't know, but it's something about--it's attractive to them, and it's a viable area downtown. Where are they gonna eat? They'll go two or three blocks to go and eat. They might go to the shopping center, that's 49:00fine. But--

Joe: Plus they're close to the library. [Laughter]

Chris: Closer to the library, [Laughter] absolutely.

Joe: That's a draw, right?

Chris: We may need a grocery store maybe. Maybe that's coming eventually? A little convenience store? We have 7/11, but--

Joe: We could get like a Whole Foods or something up in that old junior high school lot.

Chris: Oh, absolutely!

Joe: You know what they're planning with that?

Chris: Well, along those lines, the Planning Commission this coming Tuesday at seven o'clock at the municipal building, is gonna hold a final vote for the planning department, whether they're gonna approve it or not approve it. But whatever they do, it's up to council, to either go with the Planning Commission or veto the Planning Commission. But if both of you are interested, seven o'clock, Tuesday evening, I hope to be there. I believe the Planning Commission is planning to vote on that, whether to approve it or not approve it.


Joe: On that old middle school property?

Chris: On the old middle school property.

Joe: What's trying to come in there?

Chris: I'm sorry?

Joe: What's trying to come in there?

Chris: Probably a mixed-use of restaurants, apartment buildings, houses. Jimmy Stoss, I believe, is a developer, but it's been in the paper within the last couple of months. You can look it up in the Roanoke Times. But it's a multi-million dollar development. The question is, that some of the merchants say, is it going to hurt downtown? Maybe initially. But I think over a period of time, it's going to add to the vibrancy of the downtown area. You're only talking about two blocks away. And the concern is traffic. I'm not sure, I'm not part of that. I just want to read in the paper.

Joe: Well, speaking of that, I mean, have you ever been tempted to join politics 51:00in the community?

Chris: I've been asked to run for town council. Number one reason would be--

Joe: You mean after leaving the restaurants behind, this was--?

Chris: While I was in the restaurant business.

Joe: While you were in it, okay.

Chris: Number one would be that I knew my business would suffer, whatever my decision.

Joe: Just because of the time?

Chris: Yeah. The time and the decision I would have to make. Number two is that, I just don't like meetings. I just hate meetings [Laughter] I like to go in a room and just make a decision: this is what we're going to do, let's get it over with. But it would take too much. I've been asked to run for town council, but I just found that I'm not that type of person. I'd rather work behind the scenes, I'd rather talk to the council on the side or the mayor or the chief of police or whatever.

Joe: Yes, nothing on your hand.

Chris: Absolutely none. Joe, it's about three o'clock.


Joe: You want to call it?

Chris: Yes, because I need to go somewhere at 3:30.

Joe: Sure, that's fine.

Chris: Okay. This has been a good one! This has been a good one, yeah. Has it been a good one there?

Joe: Yeah. Thanks so much.

Chris: We go from things, one thing to another.

Joe: Yeah.

Chris: Okay! Can we wind it up?

Joe: Yes. Let's wrap it up. Thank you very much.

Chris: Well, thank you. Appreciate it.

[End of interview]