Detroit’s Greektown strives to stay Greek yet diverse
Greektown hasn’t forgotten how to light the saganaki. It just learned how to flip a burger, bake a deep-dish pizza and whip up caffeinated drinks in a Venti size, its defenders say.
With much of downtown becoming a hot entertainment district, Greektown is learning to adapt. That has brought a rise in non-Greek offerings and chain restaurants, causing some grumblings that Greektown is losing its unique Hellenic taste.
Even the landmark neighborhood casino is losing its Greek flavor, with the building’s owners de-emphasizing the Greektown name in favor of the moniker “Jack.”
Supporters say the evolution of Greektown isn’t a tragedy, but a Detroit success story. It has thrived through vast change and many properties are still owned by descendants of immigrants who founded the entertainment district more than 45 years ago.
“We Greeks aren’t going anywhere. No one ever really sells their buildings,” said Nico Gatzaros, whose father, Ted, was one of the immigrants who began to open Greek restaurants, pastry shops and nightclubs around Monroe in the 1970s.
“Back in the ’90s, I remember everyone telling my family, ‘lights out in Detroit. Go to the suburbs,’ ” said Gatzaros, 46. “We doubled down.”
Many in the business community here are determined to keep a strong Greek presence despite a changing business landscape.
“If you remember the old days of Greektown, of course, it has lost lots of its Greek flavor,” said James Bieri, principal of Stokas Bieri Real Estate in Detroit and Southfield.
Bieri — who is also on the board of the Urban Land Institute of Michigan, a nonprofit that explores planning and development issues — said Greektown is facing the same growing pains of many urban ethnic enclaves in the U.S. The immigrant group that created the neighborhood no longer lives there, but the area remains a commercial and social destination.
As inner-cities become popular again, said Bieri, rising rents make it tough for insular businesses to survive.
“Rents are expensive these days, that makes it really hard to keep a small cafe that attracts mainly one particular group of people. If there is still lots of Greek-American ownership in the area, that’s a good sign anyway,” Bieri said.
Tasso Teftsis, owner of Astoria Pastry and Red Smoke Barbecue, talks about the Greektown Preservation Society and its efforts to preserve the historic nature of Greektown.
Greektown’s main strip — Monroe — is neatly split between independent Greek-American entrepreneurs and billionaire Dan Gilbert, who now owns the eponymous casino and hotel.
On the north side of Monroe are primarily restaurants and pastry shops — Santorini, Golden Fleece, Astoria Pastry, Plaka Cafe to name a few — owned by families whose ties to the neighborhood date back to the 1970s and 1960s.
Many of the owners were once tenants who were able to gain ownership of the buildings and “make the American dream for themselves,” said Tasso Teftsis, president of the Greektown Preservation Society.
On the other side of Monroe is the massive casino building. Last month, the Greektown Casino-Hotel declared it would change its name to Jack Detroit Casino Hotel Greektown later this year. The move is part of a $40 million rebranding of Gilbert’s Rock Gaming LLC, which also has holdings in Ohio. All of the holdings, including hotels connected to the casinos, will soon have Jack in their name.
In the parking lot of the Greektown Casino-Hotel, there is a Starbucks. Inside the casino building, there’s the fast food chain Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a Cold Stone Creamery, even a display for the IKEA in Canton Township. This summer, Michigan’s first Wahlburgers, a celebrity-owned burger joint, will set up in the casino building on Monroe.
There’s also the Old Shillelagh, Firebird Tavern and PizzaPapalis — to name a few of the beloved non-Greek fare. But it’s the chain establishments that aren’t getting a warm welcome from some of locals and patrons who claim it harms the district’s unique heritage.
“If you go up and down the street, we all think that chains are negative,” Teftsis said. “You don’t want that in Greektown.”
After a recent lunchtime visit to the area, Northwest Detroiter Ty Brown shared a similar concern.
“The older (businesses) keep the money in the city. But these people come in and move on,” said Brown, 30, as he left Five Guys, noting the now closed Bagger Dave’s down the street. “I don’t like it.”
But Matt Cullen, president of Jack Entertainment and president and CEO of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC, contends that much of the non-Greek fare Gilbert is introducing has the blessing of nearby owners.
“We respect that community and work with business owners there as much as we can,” Cullen said. “We have often asked them: ‘How can we make the area better?’ And what you see is partly based on those discussions.”
Greeks seek new customers
Besides, it was the Greeks who began to make Greektown less Greek decades ago. It’s all about attracting customers. In the 1980s, PizzaPapalis came to Greektown and changed the area for the better, Teftsis said. The building is still owned by a Greek-American family.
“You can go back and say ‘it’s not Greek.’ But you sure don’t want PizzaPapalis going away now,” Teftsis said.
His family came from Greece and located in the area in the 1960s. His father worked as a barber in a shop and his mother worked in the bakery that’s been owned by his family since 1971.
Growing up, Teftsis said he’s watched the district evolve from a destination for Greeks to buy olives and cheeses and visit coffee houses to an entertainment district that attracted patrons to eateries and nightlife.
Teftsis knows the value of Greek versus non-Greek fare in his own ventures. In 2010, his family opened Red Smoke Barbecue after pouring $2.1 million into renovating a historic building.
“We chose a barbecue restaurant because we thought that would be best in this area,” said Teftsis, who also owns the Astoria Pastry Shop. “It just adds one more thing for people to come to Greektown.”
A year ago, the Teftsis family opened Krema. It offered gelato and coffee and traditional Greek spinach pie and bougatsa, a custard pastry. But it didn’t draw enough customers. Krema is reopening this spring with homemade ice creams and smoothies.
Starting in the 1970s, Ted Gatzaros along with his wife, Maria, and a former business partner, Dimitrios “Jim” Papas, began to form a multitude of businesses on Monroe — including what is now Greektown Casino-Hotel. Nico Gatzaros is now involved in the family business along with his mother, and sister and brother-in-law.
Like the other Greek American families, they began to open non-Greek theme restaurants in the district years ago. The Gatzaros run the Cajun-inspired Fishbone’s Rhythm Kitchen Cafe and the International Banquet Center, both of which are housed in 400 Monroe, a building they own.
“The truth is, we’re doing great, and Dan Gilbert is part of the reason. Why should we complain?” said Nico Gatzaros.
Some even like changing the name of the casino to emphasize the word Jack.
“It gives us our identity back” by downplaying the Greektown reference, Teftsis said. “People would talk about Greektown, and you didn’t know if they were talking about the casino or the neighborhood. We’re Greektown and the casino just happens to be in the neighborhood.”
Gilbert, Greeks on same side
Many business owners say they like working with Gilbert and that he cares about maintaining Greektown’s unique identity.
“I think Dan Gilbert introduced himself to every Greek owner in the district,” said Yanni Dionisopoulos, who owns and runs Golden Fleece. It’s the oldest Greek restaurant in the district, he contends. It was started by his family.
Dionisopoulos said Gilbert supported the idea of having Greek music piped into the streets, and backed the recent “Greektown and Sundown” event, which called for Monroe to be closed to traffic on weekend nights to host a street party with al fresco dining, performances, music and art.
The casino works closely with the Greektown Preservation Society, one of the oldest merchant organizations in the city. With 28 member business, including the casino, it’s focused on maintaining the historic nature of the buildings and preserving the Greektown heritage.
“This area is the result of the hard work of so many Greek families,” Dionisopoulos said. “We are not going to walk away from that and having a great business man like Dan Gilbert work with us — that is not a bad thing at all.”