If you walk into Souvlaki GR and forget for a moment that you’re in Australia, you wouldn’t be the first.
“A few comments have been that it’s a better option to come to our shop than jump on a plane to Greece – it’s a lot cheaper and faster,” owner Sam Karagiozis told Neos Kosmos.
The 26-year-old entrepreneur dreamed up the concept of opening his own souvlaki joint in Melbourne after eating his first souvlaki on a trip to Greece while visiting family at the age of 16.
“I had never had a souvlaki before and I was so intrigued by how it had the chips in it and how they were a bit smaller,” he recalls.
“I spoke to my cousin and we made a deal; when I finish high school we can open one together. But I never finished high school, and I sort of forgot about it.”
Fast forward seven years and Sam is proving dreams do come true – after lots of hard work and perseverance.
Formerly the owner of a security company, he decided to sell that business and take the plunge to pursue his passion project.
“The day I signed, I called Laz (Lazaros Arnaoutidis) and reminded him of our conversation all those years ago. I asked him to come and help me set it up for around three months and then he could go back to Greece. He came down, we set it up and three months later he became the store manager.”
From then on the cousins have kept growing their brand, and now Laz is the national operations manager. Their popular souvlaki joint first opened its doors in Thornbury two years ago and due to popular demand they opened a second site in St Kilda, with a third due to open in early 2018 in Queensland’s Toowoomba.
“We had a couple of friends come and eat at our shop and they were taken by it. So we decided to head up to Queensland for a weekend to Toowoomba to check it out. We saw that there was nothing even remotely close to what we have to offer,” he says.
So the pair went out to conduct their own research, spending a couple of nights speaking to locals in the community, and after further market research decided to take the leap, and signed the lease just days ago.
The idea of expanding was one Sam says he shied away from initially, not wanting to take the risk of “growing too big too quick”.
But with the encouragement of his cousin and business partner Laz, they decide to expand but keep it in-house to ensure their brand, which is known for its consistency and quality, wouldn’t be compromised.
“We have plans to open up another three in the next 18 months, and as for locations I believe Perth and Adelaide are where we’re looking at going next,” Sam revealed.
“But if I feel that we’ve grown too much and we can’t keep up with the quality then we’ll stop growing in terms of new stores. My biggest passion is knowing that it is a Greek restaurant that is what it’s meant to be – with a great vibe and atmosphere,” which he says is really what sets them apart.
Before opening their doors, Sam says they did their research in Greece and pinpointed the best things about the various souvlaki shops that they loved – service, quality, music – and merged it into one to create an authentic, yet unique, experience which has been well received by locals.
Meanwhile their open kitchen design is something the team pride themselves on, offering chicken, lamb and pork cooked over charcoal on display for customers, along with their skilled wrappers who handwrap the souvlaki with lightning speed just like in Greece.
Their seasonings and dips are all made in-house, with a special marinade worked and developed over time to perfection by the cousins’ fathers, brothers Taki and Tass, which is such a secret even Sam admits he wouldn’t be able to tell us what’s in it.
Sam is also a frequent diner at his establishment and has decided to share his own Savvas Special with customers as an alternative to their classic options – a souvlaki with chicken, fetta and tasty cheese, tarama and lettuce – currently a bestseller in Thornbury and soon to be on the menu in St Kilda.
Despite the bayside store only having been open a few months, it has already developed its regular customer base.
“The demographic is completely different. In Thornbury everyone knew we were there in 24 hours because of the number of Greeks, and in St Kilda it’s completely different. The response from the people around there is that they love it. They haven’t eaten food quite like this before; they’ve been to a souvlaki shop, but they haven’t had the same experience as in our shop,” he says.
Also one of the biggest Bitcoin brokers in Australia, Sam has introduced one of only a handful of Bitcoin ATMs in the state to their St Kilda store, where people can buy and sell the online currency on the spot.
And while Thornbury will always be their first foray into the food industry, Sam admits that the St Kilda location does complete the experience.
“You’ve got a shop like this that makes you feel like you’re in Greece when you’re inside but also not too different when you’re outside because you’ve got the beach right there. So it’s definitely a good spot. We’ve had the same people coming back every day and we’ve had good reviews from all the locals in the area.”
With summer just around the corner, and a third shop underway, it’s fair to say it’s going to be a busy few months for Souvlaki GR.
Souvlaki GR is located at 665 High St, Thornbury and 78 Acland St, St Kilda. Stay up-to-date at facebook.com/pg/thesouvlakiGR
To view the menu and order online (delivery currently only available in Thornbury area), visit souvlakigrthornbury.com.au/