A Real Greek in London and the Seven Wonders of the Restaurant Industry

Christos Karatzenis
Just like the seven wonders of the ancient world, which impressed and captivated Greek travelers in the 4th century BC, the seven Real Greek restaurants dotted around London have a few of their own marvels and are enticing their diners with tantalizing Mediterranean dishes.
Here in a candid interview with Christos Karatzenis, who is head of operations, we learn more about the popular restaurants and what sets them apart from other competitors. We also discover, why a real Greek businessman chose to emigrate to the UK.
First of all Christo, tell me about your background, roots etc and what influenced you to make such a dramatic change in your life and leave Greece?

My father owned a very successful restaurant in Kolonaki, called ‘Jimmy’s Cooking’, so I grew up in the restaurant industry. I worked in the family restaurant until 2004, then left to go and work for the Athens Olympic Games

In 2005, I moved to London to develop a Greek restaurant concept for a Greek businessman. I fell in love with the hospitality industry here in the UK almost immediately and have been here ever since.

The Real Greek – Bankside

Can you now tell me about ‘The Real Greek’ restaurants and what it is like working with celebrity chef, Theodore Kyriakou, who Founded the first restaurant in Hoxton, in 1999, and then went on to open more of them.

Theodore started The Real Greek as an independent fine dining establishment in Hoxton, however he is no longer involved in the restaurants. The group has grown steadily in recent years and we now has seven outlets (Westfield,Westfield Stratford City, Hoxton, Bankside, Marylebone, Spitalfields and Covent Garden) across London, offering market leading Greek cuisine. In line with the relaxed Mediterranean theme, diners are encouraged to order a range of dishes to share around the table – all food is freshly made, with many of the ingredients being shipped directly from Greece.

What were you doing before you joined the team as head of operations at The Real Greek restaurants and how difficult was it to leave Greece and go to a country with a very difficult culture?

 After opening the London restaurant ‘As Greek as It Gets’ in 2005, I moved to PONTI’S GROUP, where I stayed for 3 years. I started as manager and worked my way up to become Operations manager for the West End and the City. I then moved to the Spanish Tapas restaurant, La Tasca, where I stayed for 8 months before joining The Real Greek.

The culture in very different here, but it was easy to adapt, as I am still working in the same industry, and the UK is full of opportunities for people with experience and passion for what they do. I wasn’t looking for a similar life to the one I had in Athens.

After owning a catering business back in Greece, how would you compare it to the job that you do now?

My passion is for the hospitality industry and food, so although it’s a big change, the fundamental aspects are the same. Working for The Real Greek is without a doubt the highlight of my career so far.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities as head of operations?

I oversee the all the managers and the day to day running of the business, my duties include everything from developing new dishes with our Head Chef, Alan, to implementing new marketing ideas. Essentially, it is my job to make sure each of the restaurants is a success in its own right.

What motivates you and the other staff working there? What different personalities are there?

 Our name, ‘The Real Greek’, motivates me every day, it inspires me to be the very best, because I want to believe our food offering and the standard of service lives up to our name. The team are also very motivational, there is a strong sense of family here and no one wants to let anyone down.

What percentage of Greeks visit The Real Greek restaurants regularly?

Approximately 20 % in total, but in certain restaurants we have more because of the location.

What do you think sets the restaurants apart from other competitors?

The authenticity of our food, we ship many of our ingredients from Greece and the dishes are exactly what you would get if you experienced Greek Street Food.  It’s also the only Greek branded operation with 7 locations in the UK.

OK. Let’s hear about the menu. What kind of Mediterranean dishes am I likely to be tempted by?

 The Real Greek is famous in London for its traditional and contemporary Greek favourites and is loved for its hot and cold sharer meals, such as the Dolmades, Chicken Skewers and Grilled Halloumi. Our grilled Calamari and our grilled Octopus are also very successful dishes.

What are the differences between traditional Greek cooking when compared to British cuisine?

 Traditional Greek cooking is more of an informal relaxed style of dining than British cuisine, because most of our favourite dishes originated on the streets. I would also say, in general, our dishes are lighter and better suited for sharing than traditional British favourites.

How difficult is it to get hold of the correct ingredients for the Greek dishes? Is it expensive to put seafood on the menu?

 No problem at all. We import everything we can’t find here from Greece, but when it comes to the fish, meat and vegetables, we use locally sourced British produce.

With Britain’s climate and changing seasons, does the menu reflect these differences?

 Yes indeed, we change the menu in the winter and the summer, altering the dishes to reflect the changing season. For example, in the summer months, when it comes into season, we feature asparagus on our menu. People want lighter dishes when we go into the summer months.

Is it true Christo, that The Real Greek restaurants were the first UK restaurants to provide calories on the menu? Tell me a little about this.

 The Real Greek was the first restaurant group in the UK to include a calorie count on every single item on its menus, from side dishes to desserts, and on the drinks list, from wines to beers. The company continues to work closely with the FSA (Food Standards Agency) and, as a pioneer of the FSA’s calorie counter menu, TRG appeals to today’s diner, with its emphasis on light and healthy food, using fresh and natural ingredients.

Greek food is naturally nutritious; using olive oil rather than saturated animal fat, and featuring healthy grilled fish and meat strongly, rather than stodgy carbohydrates.  Some modern Greek favourites are surprisingly low in calories; Grilled Halloumi at The Real Greek comes in at 151 calories, Lamb Kefte has just 344 calories and a bottle of white Retsina contains 655 calories.

 What have been some of your most successful promotions?

 The  £20 meal deal for 2 people, which includes 7 dishes and 2 drinks, has proven to be very successful.

 As far as you know, was it difficult to get The Real Greek restaurants off the ground?

I believe the restaurant group has grown fairly quickly over the last decade and we are still growing, we opened our latest restaurant in Westfield Stratford this September and it’s exceeded every expectation.

Bankside and Convent Garden restaurants are in excellent locations as they are within walking distances of popular venues, i.e. The Globe Theatre and Tate Modern. Was it easy to acquire these most sought after premises?

Both locations are wonderful, but let’s not forget the two sites in the Westfield shopping centres, Spitafields Market, even Marylebone, one of London’s top residential areas. In the UK, if a brand is strong and a company is healthy, then landlords are happy to give you the best premises.

Do you get the chance to speak Greek, living in the UK?

We now have a number of Greek employees here at The Real Greek and of course I have to talk with all our Greek suppliers daily, so  yes I do.

What is your favourite dish at the restaurants? What would you recommend to someone trying Greek food for the first time?

 My favourite dish is the Pork souvlaki. To a first time customer, I would recommend the Greek dips: Teramosalata, tzatziki, Htipiti etc with pita bread, our tirropittakia, Calamari and Dolmades and on their second visit, the souvlaki of course.

Do diners listen to Greek music and do you have live music and traditional Greek dancers?

Every Friday and Saturday at the Bankside restaurant we do a live Rebetiko music night, while in Hoxton we have instrumental Bouzouki music, so yes diners do listen to Greek music at our restaurants.

 Where do you see The Real Greek restaurants in ten years time? Will we see a lot more of them around the UK?

In ten years time, I believe the group will have grown to 10-15 restaurants, with more souvlaki bars and perhaps even some Real Greek Delis.

What advice would you give to a young person interested in opening a restaurant?

First, you have to learn how to run a restaurant successfully and in a profitable way. I would suggest that a young person looking to open up a restaurant should work for an established restaurateur first, someone who can act as a mentor and show them the ropes. Once they have proved themselves, they can think about going it alone; but only then.

Finally, Christos. Is there anything you miss about Greece and how do you feel about the present economical situation in your home country? Is there the possibility of you returning one day?

I will always miss Greece, it’s where I’m from. I was in Athens two weeks ago and I loved being back in the hustle and bustle. Summers on the Greek islands will always be a must for me, but my life is in the UK now.

With regards to the current economical climate, it’s a similar situation to the one which we have faced here in the UK over the last 4 years, but the British people have turned things around and are thinking about growth again. If the Greeks do the same, then soon the outlook will improve.

For more information and bookings at the restaurants, contact:

The Real Greek – Hoxton: Tel: 020 7739 8212/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Bankside: Tel: 020 7620 0162/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Marylebone: Tel: 020 7486 0466/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Convent Garden: Tel: 020 7240 2292/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Westfield London: Tel: 020 8743 9168/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Spitalfields: Tel: 020 7375 1364/Email: [email protected]

The Real Greek – Westfield Stratford City: Tel: 020 8503 1844/[email protected]