This is the first in a series of Q&A with American-born Greeks living in Greece, who embody the philosophy of WindyCity Greek — doing innovative and exciting things.
This time, I caught up with Perry Panagiotakopoulos, a Chicago-born Greek who is a Kalamata restaurateur. Perry shares his story, what he’s up to, what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in Greece, and more.
Maria A. Karamitsos: You’re from Chicago. Where were you born and raised? What church did you attend?
MAK: When did you move to Greece? Why?
PP: I moved to Greece in 1983 because my immigrant parents wanted to move back. I actually moved back to Chicago in 1998 and worked there for three years, before returning to Greece.
MAK: Do you still have family in Chicago? Do you ever visit?
PP: I have just one family that is “real family” but I have many good friends there. I used to come often, but now probably once every other year.
MAK: Do you think about returning to the States or are you determined to make your career in Greece?
PP: Currently, I don’t have any plans to move back. I’m doing well here in Greece.
MAK: You’re the owner of the popular Luna Lounge, in the center of Kalamata. When did you open it?
PP: I opened Luna Lounge in 2008 and it’s doing very well. It was basically the first real bistro in the city. Before that, in 2003, I opened a bar called “Bar-Bar” at the historical district of Kalamata which was a typical drinking bar; I sold it at 2009.
MAK: You’re newest venture, η καντοινα (Ed. Note: The Kantoina, with the “oi” as a play off the word oinos, the ancient Greek word for wine, because it’s also a wine bar) takes the notions of “buy local”, “fresh”, and “seasonal” to a new level. You’re helping to sustain area businesses. Tell us about it.
PP: η καντοινα opened this past April 1. It’s in the market (agora) of the city. The concept is that since we are in the midst of the best of Greece (the products of the Greek land), each day, we buy the products we use from the agora only. If you have been in the agora of Kalamata you know why the quality of the products is so attractive; when you visit the area, be sure to check it out. That got us thinking about a small restaurant with an open kitchen. The menu, created by Chef Angeliki, changes every day based on the season and the market.
MAK: The current economic climate is challenging, to say the least. Why open another restaurant now?
PP: You always have to be ahead of the times. Our thought was that we had this idea about using the best products and be in that environment. There is no one else doing this, no other restaurants in the agora and we had the benefit of having Chef Angeliki, who was available, willing and enthusiastic to do it.
MAK: You’re committed to staying in Greece – at least for now. What do you say to those who ask why you are staying, when so many young people are leaving?
PP: I like the quality of life a lot. Plus, the cost of living is still low, which gives the chance to do a lot of things easier, like traveling etc. As far as work, I think you can still find your way even though it’s not easy. Remember that good workers is a big gap in Greece.
MAK: You see opportunity where others may only see challenges or road blocks.
PP: With all the changes, businesses and people leaving from Greece, the markets of tourism and Greek products are what is left. These are areas of opportunity. If you want to do something in Greece, as I did, those are the markets to get into.
MAK: Tell us about some of the challenges you face.
PP: Running a business here has challenges, just like anywhere else. With the economic climate as it is, it is tougher. Our biggest challenges is perhaps that things change so fast and in a bad way in Greece and that make things unsteady, and brings up unknowns. Just Imagine that this year it is the second time we have elections in 9 months. This crisis is very bad. The worst thing about it, is that society is in crisis. People are so angry and they would fight over anything. Even though everyone knows we have to stay united, there is a level of anger at how all this has gone down. And about anything. I think this is the biggest problem that the Greek people are facing now.
These challenges are not insurmountable. We work hard, we try to stay ahead, be innovative, and do our best. Things can only get better. Come and visit Greece. It’s a very beautiful and safe country.
Maria’s visit to Luna Lounge
I’d heard so much about Luna Lounge, so while in Kalamata this summer, with my husband and kids in tow, we found it during a stroll on the old “Nifopazaro,” the main square in Kalamata.
We found a chic, trendy spot, with windows and doors open to the street and friendly faces inside. Our server was incredibly patient and welcoming to our two young daughters. She recommended a pasta dish, which they gobbled up as if they hadn’t eaten in days.
We told the server we were from Chicago, and she cheerfully explained that the proprietor was as well. We told her that we’d hoped to find Perry. We were informed that unfortunately, he was at his new restaurant.
I made a quick trip to the lower level restroom, where I discussed an impressive selection of wines on display. My husband and I enjoyed a glass of Moschofilero, and some outstanding mezedakia. In pure Greek style, there was no rushing us out, no problem bringing the kids. To relax you and add to the ambience, there was even cool lounge music, perfectly curated by a DJ. It was a recipe for making you want to stay there all night – and be out with la luna – the moon.
As we left through the other entrance, a delightful blond lady emerged from the kitchen. “Are you the family from Chicago?” she asked. It was Perry’s mother! She was helping in the kitchen, and was on her way back to her own store in town. The entrepreneurial spirit runs in this family! She told us about the new place, η καντοινα. We wanted to check it out, but time got away from us. Next time. Add Perry Panagiotakopoulos’ Luna Lounge to your Kalamata “must go” list. We’ll be back.