13-gyro love affair

For decades, Madison has loved its gyros, and at Parthenon, young owners ensure that love and tradition are the main ingredients.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Fresh off a recent trip to Greece to visit family and celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, Dimitri and Erin Vranas are carrying on the family tradition at Parthenon Gyros, 316 State St., which they purchased in 2017.

Dimitri, 41, represents the restaurant’s third generation at Parthenon, and together with Erin, they are securing its future with updated technology, smart hiring, and a cross-trained staff.

“We’ve created a great culture here,” Erin, 32, says. “We hire more for personality than skills because if people have a great attitude, they can be trained. There’s a checklist every day for morning, noon, and evening hours. Everyone knows what to do. The managers check the employees, and we check the managers. It’s a great system.”

Duties are shared, adds Dimitri. “Most restaurants hire for cooks, dishwashers, or cashiers, but I don’t think anyone subscribes to be a dishwasher, so we all do it together.”

According to its website, Parthenon was the first restaurant to bring the gyro to Wisconsin, and it remains one of just a few gyro restaurants still making the traditional Greek sandwich by hand. It also makes its own Greek yogurt from scratch, which serves as the base for the tzatziki sauce. The yogurt is also sold separately.

Greek restaurants are often known for their expansive menus, but at Parthenon, where one sandwich represents 95 percent of sales, why mess with a good thing?

The proof is in the recipe, and on this day, seconds after the doors open, four customers are already in line.

Making gyros

Dimitri sports swim goggles to keep from crying as he demonstrate the techniques for slicing up to 200 pounds of onions and 100 pounds of Roma tomatoes every day.

The magic begins in the brightly lit and impeccably clean basement. “We have a very limited menu, so we make everything in large quantities,” Dimitri says, “and we’re the only gyro restaurant in the country to grind our meat and make our own yogurt.”

A gyro is made of pita bread, meat, vegetables, spices, and sauce. While its ingredients are simple, pronouncing the name “gyro” has challenged many. [Country singer Luke Bryan and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon even performed a parody about it in a skit.]

Parthenon YEER-os are made from a mixture of whole-muscle cuts of lamb and beef. The restaurant orders one ton of meat every week, and slices 100 pounds of Roma tomatoes and about 200 pounds of onions every day. Staff wears swim goggles to keep from crying.

Presentation is everything, explains Erin. “I like pretty,” she says, astute to the impact of Instagram and Facebook. “Food needs to be pretty because people eat with their eyes first, noses second, and mouths third.”

Erin has become a whiz at making yogurt from scratch for tzatziki sauce.

The restaurant’s unique pepper grinder, designed by Dimitri and his father, Gus, can grind 50 to 100 pounds of whole peppercorns at a time, Erin says proudly. “The main grinder comes from France and is the only industrial pepper grinder in the world! It’s our own little contraption that nobody else has, but it makes a huge flavor difference. We use it constantly.”

Dimitri nods. “Pre-ground pepper just doesn’t have the kick.”

The yogurt-making process happens down the hall. It takes about 160 gallons of milk to produce an equal amount of Greek yogurt, and Dimitri praises Erin’s mastery of the process as she lifts a stainless-steel lid to check on a 40 gallon batch made yesterday.

“Right now, we’ve got curds and whey, but when we put a paddle in it, the curds will separate from the whey, and the whey will drain out,” she explains.

Yogurt is made every couple of days, and while U.S. standards require two strains of probiotics, the Parthenon’s has five, making it healthier, Erin explains.

In the utility room, a slab of beef and lamb flank are brought to a stainless-steel table. Erin immediately trims the beef while Dimitri dons a white butcher coat, appropriate hair, facial nets and gloves, and drops the slabs in a grinder.

Spices are mixed in before Dimitri packs about 50-pounds of meat into a cone-shaped form. When needed, it will be carried upstairs (no elevators here) and placed on a vertical, fire-heated rotisserie. As the meat slowly turns, the outside layer is seared to about 200 degrees before thin layers are shaved onto the pita.



Recipe for success

Dimitri demonstrates how gyro meat is made. Beef and lamb are ground together, mixed with spices, and packed by hand into large cones. The meat is seared on a rotisserie and thin slices are shaved off.

In 1991, a fire at the Parthenon forced Dimitri’s parents and his grandparents to rebuild. “It was a mess,” he recalls. He spent the bulk of his childhood here, but wasn’t particularly excited about following in his parents’ footsteps. In fact, he left twice looking for other career options, only to return.

Then, 13 years ago, he spotted Erin walking by the restaurant. Only 19 at the time, she had worked in several restaurants around town and loved the industry.

Now, their love for each other is charmingly evident as they finish each other’s sentences. “We approach everything out of love, guidance, and mindset,” Erin smiles.

The restaurant is the beneficiary. Parthenon Gyros is enjoying its best year yet.

A partnership with EatStreet makes deliveries a breeze, and catering is brisk, too. “It would be nice to expand to a turnkey location with more parking,” Dimitri hints, though perfecting the flagship comes first.

Parthenon’s 30-plus employees are paid wages that are higher than industry standards, receive paid time off, and longevity is rewarded with health insurance, vision, and dental. “We’ve busted our butts to get to the point where we could provide health care for our employees,” Erin explains. “We want to share our profits with them!”

Dimitri agrees. “Our priority is our staff. When they’re happy, we know they’ll be amazing to our guests.”

As if on cue, a chorus of “Opa!” fills the room. The lunchtime crew just received another donation to the tip jar.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.