The year was 1978. The place, 200 South and 400 East in Salt Lake City. Two Greek immigrants opened a 70-seat restaurant in a long, skinny building and served up a hamburger cooked over an open flame and topped off with pastrami, a luncheon meat.
That first Crown Burger'opened in what is now the parking lot north of today’s restaurant'was an immediate hit. One month after opening, a constant line of customers streamed out the door, lip smacking for the namesake pastrami burger, said Rula Katzourakis, who owns the restaurant with her husband John Katzourakis.
Seventeen years later, the number of Crown Burger outposts has multiplied to seven, each owned by one of Rula’s brothers, nephews or in-laws, all members of a large family of immigrants from the Greek island of Crete named Katsanevas, and all seemingly bent on bringing their signature burger to every corner of the Wasatch Front.
The Greek connection to Utah burgers doesn’t end there. Nearly every well-known, independent burger restaurant in the state is owned and operated by Greeks. It’s almost as if some sort of ethnic cabal is cornering the market through liberal production of the best burgers in the country.
The year after the first Crown Burger opened, Rula’s brothers, Steve and Manuel Katsanevas, opened Crown Burger No. 2. That same year, two other Greek immigrants, John Lyhnakis and Angelo Tsoutsounakis, opened the first Astro Burger.
Encouraged by their success, more burger diners came soon after: Apollo Burger, Atlas Burger, Atlantis Burgers, Olympus Burger, Palace Burger, each as the restaurants’ names imply, owned and operated by Greeks.
According to a new history put out by the Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake, 100 Years of Faith and Fervor, the names behind Utah’s homegrown burgers are a phone book of Greece. Effichios Katsanevakis and John Hatzipolakis started Atlantic Burger, and Irene and Larry Papadopoulos own, cook and staff the cash registers at Palace Burger. Elias Neofitos operates Olympus Burger. John Zouras runs Apollo Burger. Other entries into the field at one time included Hellenic Burger and Golden Burgers owned by people named Tzakis, Makris and Kallinikos.
And that just covers Greek Utahns who concentrated their talents on hamburgers. If we included the names of all Utah’s Greek restaurateurs'from those selling souvlaki and gyro throughout the valley to Greeks who operate some of Utah’s finest non-Greek restaurants'there wouldn’t be room for anything else.
Each of the Greek burger bistros features a pastrami burger, known alternately as the Astro, the Palace, the Atlantis, etc., along with a growing menu of steaks, hot- and cold-deli sandwiches, full dinner menus and a few Greek specialties such as gyro, souvlaki, and baklava. The menu at Palace Burger on State Street is typical, advertising “charbroiled burgers” along with the day’s specials: dolmades, Philly cheesesteak sandwich, turkey-avocado-Swiss, chicken kebab and a 7-ounce ribeye-steak sandwich.
But the reason for the success of these eateries remains the same today as when the first Crown Burger opened in 1978: It’s about the burger.
The Crown Burger'the signature sandwich of the first restaurant to introduce Utah to the meat-on-meat combination of hamburger and pastrami'is an almost perfect creation. A patty charbroiled over open flame and topped with a mound of red pastrami thicker than the burger itself on a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, tomato, cheese and a secret sauce, the Crown is presented half-wrapped in paper for ease of eating and comes appetizingly arranged, just so, never a piece of pastrami out of place, with fries, onion rings, or salad, or even a side of rice pilaf.
“It’s like peanut butter and chocolate: two great things on their own, even better when combined,” noted Nick Zukin, a devotee from Portland, whose food blog, ExtraMSG.com, prominently features a mouthwatering photograph of the Crown Burger snapped during his last trip to Utah.
One taste of a Utah-made pastrami burger is enough for a lifetime’s addiction. A trip to one of the Greek-owned burger restaurants is perhaps the first request of returned missionaries and a frequent stop for tourists who often order extras to take home. The demand for a traveling Crown is so frequent that the owners of Crown Burger No. 1, on 200 South and 400 East, have devised a system of separating out the burger’s component parts for later reassembly to avoid sogginess during transport in airplane luggage. Restaurant owner Rula Katzourakis said she once shipped a burger to Florida.
With all of the devotion the sandwiches inspire, the burgers are surprisingly simple creations. One proprietor let it that slip that the beef is spiced. The patty is, of course, charbroiled, as the signs outside loudly proclaim. But the success of the burgers and the restaurants is likely less a secret sauce or technique than something along the lines of a theory developed by the late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who once wrote in the Chicago Tribune: When considering a restaurant, ask, “Is it run by short Greeks?”
What is wrong with America, Royko wrote in a Chicago Tribune column, is embodied in the modern restaurant owned by a corporation and managed by a suit who sits in the back office. The modern approach contrasts with Royko’s favorite burger hangout, the Billy Goat Tavern, run by Sam Sianis'who was owner, dishwasher, bartender, short-order cook and nephew to original owner, Greek immigrant William “Billy Goat” Sianis. Royko noted the elder Sianis worked past 3 a.m. on the day he died. “It was typical of Billy Goat that he would die during the only five hours of the day when his place wasn’t open for business. That’s how good a businessman he was.”
The first Crown Burger opened at a time when it appeared McDonald’s and the other burger giants were going to take over the world. In 1978, the year of the first Crown Burger, McDonald’s opened its 5,000th restaurant'in Japan.
Utah’s Greek-burger bistros not only survived but continued to thrive, even now when it appears the big boys may be in trouble. Wendy’s is selling off assets following a yearlong sales slump. McDonald’s, after its worst annual sales performance since 2002, is being pressured by institutional investor Pershing Square Capital management to sell two-thirds of its restaurants to boost shareholder returns.
How have Utah’s burger restaurants done it? At a time when some national fast-food enterprises trumpet remote order-taking call centers as the newest innovation in efficiency, routing orders placed at drive-through windows overseas before sending them back via satellite to a faceless prep cook inside, each Crown Burger has on premises at all times one of the owners and/or the owners’ sons and daughters, or two or three. The Katsanevas family never hired managers for their restaurants, preferring to do it themselves.
Because each Crown Burger is owned separately, each has unique elements. The inside of Crown Burger No. 2, at North Temple and 300 West, is like no other fast-food restaurant. Customers dine beneath a chandelier at tables surrounding a working brick fireplace bordered by two tall wooden lions and decorated with a medieval-looking tapestry. On the back wall, statues in armor hold plants while wooden gargoyles balance lamps on their heads. Each booth is lit by electric candles in brass holders. A stylized forest scene is etched into glass.
The front of the restaurant is organized chaos. A line of order-takers calls out orders to a line of cooks at the grill behind. The entire stainless-steel operation is on display for patrons to watch as their food is prepared to order using two revolving spits of gyro meat, a grill and, finally, a controlled inferno where hamburgers cook over open flame.
Sticking out like a sore thumb among the largely Hispanic staff is a 67-year-old mustached Greek man, restaurant owner Manuel Katsanevas. Nearby is his brother Steve, who, while now in the insurance business, frequently stops by for a chat.
Manuel has been at his Crown Burger No. 2 restaurant nearly every day since opening it with Steve in 1979. He is wearing an apron. He still flips burgers. Intermittently during our conversation, Manuel gets up and meanders around with a fly swatter: “There is a fly in here, and I’m trying to get it. It’s December and every day I’m having to get four or five of them.
Flies notwithstanding, the Crown Burger restaurants are impeccably clean. A customer leaves the bathrooms with a sensation unusual for fast-food places'hands that are cleaner after they’re washed. The unique dÃ©cor of the restaurants are meant to evoke English royalty, as in the crown, a name Manuel says was chosen to reflect “the best.”
“A lot of people don’t take care of their customers,” said Manuel’s brother, Steve, explaining why his siblings don’t leave their restaurants to managers. “That’s why I say today the owners are still at their places working. They don’t have to be, but they’re there.”
“They have to be,” Manuel interrupts, and the brothers lapse into conversation in Greek.
“We never did count the hours,” said Manuel. “We just knew we had to do something and did it. When you’ve invested a big part of your life I guess you’re scared you might lose that. You never want to lose that because you never want to go back to where you were.”
Manuel and Steve are two of 10 children of Michael Katsanevas, a Greek immigrant granted U.S. citizenship for his service as a soldier in World War I. He came to Utah in 1909 following a cousin and opened a Greek coffeehouse in Salt Lake City' Anekti Karthia, or Open Heart.
The elder Katsanevas returned to Greece during World War II, married and, in 1948, came back to Utah with three of his children, hoping to earn enough to bring his wife and the other children later. When work as a janitor at the Utah Capitol and Hill Air Force Base didn’t bring in enough money, a community fundraiser did, allowing Katsanevas to send for his family in 1954. The saga of the reunited family caught the attention of national media and was written up in the pages of Life magazine and Reader’s Digest.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Katsanevas family operated The Athenian, a legendary Greek restaurant and nightclub on 200 South. Mike Korologos, former Salt Lake City newspaperman and editor of the Greek Orthodox Church’s recent history, described the restaurant as “typical of the places you saw in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, [with] pillars, mother working in the kitchen.” Steve Katsanevas led Greek dancing at the restaurant.
Steve said the nightclub was a lot of fun, but it didn’t make much money. In 1978, Steve and Manuel closed the Athenian and went to work with several other family members at the first Crown just opened by their elder brother Jim and brother-in-law John Katzourakis.
In the years since, six other family members have opened their own Crown Burger restaurants: Steve and Manuel on North Temple, sister Rita and her husband John Klonizos in West Valley City, Jim Katsanevas on Highland Drive, Nick Katsanevas at 3300 S. State and Manuel’s son Chris with his first cousin Mike Katsanevas in Sandy. John Katzourakis’ brother Mike has a Crown Burger in Layton with next-generation restaurant owner Bill Katsanevas, nephew to the immigrant brothers and sisters.
As I’m talking with the Katsanevas brothers, a regular customer brings in a Christmas present. It’s clear that this isn’t the faceless multinational corporation that comes at you through the indifferent voice of a glassy-eyed 16-year-old robotically asking, “Do you want fries with that?
Utah’s Greek burger places often play host to high-school prom couples that set the restaurants’ cozy booths with tablecloths and candles. Several have put on wedding receptions.
Whatever you do, don’t refer to one of the Greek-run places as a burger “joint.” The owners pride themselves on providing a warm comfortable atmosphere along with fresh food made from quality ingredients.
Korologos professes ignorance about why the Greek burger place took off in Utah. “Hamburgers are hardly Greek,” he said. Fast food may have been a natural as a throwback to food stalls in the old country.
“In Greece, in Athens, the village streets are dotted with walk-up windows where you can get a piece of souvlaki, lamb or pork, or can pick up a gyro, or hot-buttered garlic bread that’s just to kill for,” he said. “They came here in the ’60s. McDonald’s was just budding. â€¦ Maybe the entrepreneurial spirit saw an opportunity.
Many of today’s Greek-burger places are related by inspiration if not by blood. Owners of different restaurants had been partners in earlier ventures. News of early success in Salt Lake City even caused some Greek immigrants to move to Utah to try their hand at the formula.
The operations set up at most of the restaurants is the same from the grill to much of the menu to the small pieces of paper inscribed with numbers handed to customers for reference in picking up orders. What you don’t see at any of them is a heat lamp.
“The best thing people are getting when they come to a place like this is they’re getting fresh food,” said Jimmy Ziouras, owner of the Apollo chain of restaurants begun by his father, John. “Our meat, our produce, our bread'everything is delivered fresh every day. We’re not using frozen meats and frozen buns and dehydrated vegetables. I’m not going to tell you it’s healthy, because plenty of the items aren’t healthy, but it’s good, fresh food. We don’t have microwaves. We’re not cooking our burgers an hour before, then just throwing them on a bun when somebody orders.”
The Ziouras family moved to Utah in 1983 from Chicago where they had operated a family-style restaurant. They opened the same restaurant in Utah, but it didn’t do as well. John Ziouras was friends with the owners of Crown Burger and Astro Burger, who encouraged him to get into fast food, Jimmy said.
“There was already groundwork laid when we got here,” he said. “People were already familiar with it through Crown, through Astro, so for us it basically took off from day one.”
The formula that has worked so well in Utah just might take off. Recent years’ consumer-satisfaction surveys conducted by fast-food consultants Sandelman & Associates have consistently found small regional fast-food chains, which typically can better control quality, receiving higher marks than the burger giants, said Chief Executive Officer Bob Sandelman. Bigger chains have recently upped quality in response to competition, however.
The first Apollo Burger opened in 1985. There are now nine locations from Bountiful to Orem. The newest restaurant just opened its doors in Draper, and plans are moving forward for two additional outposts. Jimmy Ziouras plans to continue growing the business “as far as we can take it.”
Atlantis Burgers now has locations in Roy, Woods Cross and Salt Lake City.
Much of the success of Utah’s Greek burger places can be put down to sweat. “The Greeks are not afraid to work,” said Korologos. Greek immigrants in Utah didn’t know the language and didn’t have an in with local politicians. “What you do is open up a tavern, like my dad did. Get into something where they can use their labor, their time. That’s all they knew how to do is work.
“These guys were workaholics,” said Vasili Lyhnakis, son of Astro burger founder John Lyhnakis. “That’s the way it was within the Cretan culture. These guys showed their love for their family by providing.”
It’s a view of work that comes from a childhood amid the great poverty that struck Greece and much of Europe after World War II, said Mike Katsanevas, recalling his father’s stories of his 12-person family surviving on potatoes in Crete. Mike, one of at least four men with the same name involved in the Crown Burger empire, has operated the Highland Drive Crown Burger since his father Jim’s death in 1996.
“The hospitality of the Greek race is amazing,” he said. “My grandmother never stopped throughout the day for one minute. If you would come over to the house, she would not stop feeding you. â€˜What do you want to eat?’ You’d eat. She’d give you more. And then there was dessert.
When Crown Burger was a proven success, Mike said he and his siblings began nagging their father to retire. Christmas, 1992, they succeeded. Jim Katsanevas gave a speech announcing he was turning over the reins. “That same night he called me at 3 in the morning,” Mike recalled. â€˜You’ve got to take me to the hospital. Something’s wrong.’”
In a scene reminiscent of Billy Goat Sianis’ death, Jim Katsanevas’ Parkinson’s disease set in quickly from the day he retired. He died four years later.
Mike graduated from college with a degree in film but took over managing the restaurant when his father became ill. He now sounds just like his uncles and aunts when he talks about the business. “I don’t ever plan to retire. When I was a kid, I had these dreams that I wanted to retire in Hawaii,” he said. “Forget it. I love what I do.”
There is one other Utah hamburger arguably as famous and as dreamt about by expats as the pastrami burger: the garlic burger at the Cotton Bottom Inn. It should come as no surprise that it’s made by Greeks.
The Cotton Bottom Inn, actually a tavern, is located at 6200 South at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon inside a low building with a wood-shingled roof. Outside, a faded wooden sign features a bunny rabbit hoisting a beer.
Inside is a dimly lit beer hall with an L-shaped bar. The room, just large enough to hold a pool table, is packed daily with a crowd of ski bums, tourists and grizzled locals.
Then there is the garlic burger. Served on one-third of a toasted French loaf baked daily on special order for the inn, the Cotton Bottom’s garlic burger comes with tomato, lettuce, lots of onions and a bag of chips. Cheese or no cheese, your call. You don’t so much eat a Cotton Bottom garlic burger as have one melt in your mouth. The garlic flavor is subtle; the home-made patty comes off like layers of a meatloaf. Best, the Cotton Bottom doesn’t overcook its hamburgers.
The famous burger came to the Cotton Bottom courtesy of Helen Chlepas, a former inn employee who took over ownership of the bar 40 years ago by paying the lease as foreclosure was looming. “She went from being employed to the boss on the same day,” said current owner Tony Chlepas, who has managed the inn since his mother’s death in 2003. Tony began working at the Cotton Bottom in 1976, dropping out of Westminster College to help after an arson fire damaged the building.
The Cotton Bottom had a “big burger” before Helen Chlepas, said Tony. She “added her little Greek touch” and the garlic.
“It’s the simplicity of it that makes it good,” he said. “It’s all just really good, fresh ingredients. Not any one single part of it dominates. You just taste a little bit of everything.”
The burger makes the business, he said. “Everybody likes to come in and have a burger once and a while. You get a craving. You’ve got to have it.”
As for the invention of the pastrami burger, that story remains cloaked in some mystery. All agree the burger has its origins in California, somewhere near Anaheim, where, before there were Greek burger palaces in Utah, there were Utah Greeks living and flipping burgers in California.
The story begins with Jim Katsanevas, the eldest of the Katsanevas family, who, with other Greeks of his generation, went looking for work in the Golden State after World War II. Katsanevas slung burgers before opening up his own place, named Minos after a legendary king of Crete said to be the son of Zeus and Europa. Also in Anaheim at the time were fellow Cretan John Lyhnakis and his cousin Angelo Tsoutsounakis, each with their own burger restaurants.
Jim’s sister Rula, with her husband John Katzourakis, followed him to California and joined him running Minos. She said they were always looking for specialty sandwiches to bring in the crowds and pastrami was all the rage in California. She suggests nothing could be more natural than to throw some of the luncheon meat on top of a hamburger.
Mike Katsanevas said his father Jim christened his California restaurant’s pastrami on burger creation the Zorba Burger and, “It just hit.
“People said, â€˜What’s a Zorba burger?’ You tell them. They eat it. They come back the next day and want another one.”
Rula and John Katzourakis took the burger with them when they moved back to Utah and opened the first Crown Burger with brother Nick Katsanevas.
Vasili Lyhnakis recalled it was a revelation to his father who received a phone call from Utah: “These guys opened up Crown Burger, and it’s booming with what we got going in California.” Lyhnakis’ father sold his California restaurant and moved to Utah to help start the first Astro Burger.
There are now three Astro Burger eateries in Utah. Tsoutsounakis still operates the restaurant at 3900 South and State Street. The Lyhnakis family has two Astro Burgers and will open a third restaurant this summer in Draper.
The pastrami burger is still relatively unknown outside of Utah. Portland food blogger Nick Zukin said he has heard of a California restaurant offering the burger, but found nowhere to compare to Utah’s “city on a hill where all burgers come with pastrami.”
But the pastrami burger may yet conquer the nation. It entered the country’s psyche last year with its introduction by Carl’s Jr. The chain restaurant trademarked the phrase “pastrami burger,” but in a press release headlined “New York deli, meet hip burger joint” had the decency to admit it stole the idea from Crown Burger.
“That’s when you know we’re getting too fat'when we’re using meat as a condiment for other meat,” quipped Jay Leno at the time. Zukin tasted the burger and judged it, “a pretty weak rendition.” The pastrami burger is no longer on the Carl’s Jr. menu.
Mike Katsanevas'grandson of the family patriarch and Manuel’s son who helps operate Crown No. 2'doesn’t envision Crown Burger conquering the world. He said he and his cousins will keep the restaurants running for years, but he’s not sure if his children’s generation will carry on in the backbreaking restaurant tradition. Crown Burger likely could guarantee it would live forever by franchising, but the idea is no more appealing to Mike than it is to his father.
“We could have franchised. We could have made more money, but why do that? We’re making ourselves a comfortable living. We’re happy the way we are. Why throw that away?” asked Mike who was born in Utah, but often speaks Greek at home with his own family.
“The thing about the Greek people, they’re a very proud people. They want to keep their name. My dad and those guys, they came from hill country and they had nothing. They worked hard to build what they got. They worked hard to give the customers what they want, to keep the name the way it is, to give the service and quality. To franchise and watch the name that they built go down?”
Besides, Mike said, his father isn’t retiring any time soon. “I can guarantee he won’t leave until the day they carry him through the gates of the cemetery.”