A discussion with Charles Bililies, owner of Souvla, a Greek restaurant which stole the hearts of San Franciscans.
Q. Souvla fuses your extensive fine dining training and Greek heritage in a casual dining spot. How did you come up with the idea to create Souvla, and what is it that sets it apart from other Greek restaurants in the area?
A. The idea came to me about six years ago when, after a backyard party where we roasted a whole lamb (Greek style) with friends, I made a simple pita sandwich with the leftover lamb meat, veggies, yogurt and feta. The light bulb went off, and I asked myself why I couldn’t find something like this anywhere, and why no one had modernized the Americanized gyro sandwich. Souvla serves a modern interpretation of the classic gyro or souvlaki sandwich. We like to think of it as Greek inspired through a Californian lens. Part of that ethos is a reflection of my own heritage; I am a second generation Greek-American, born and raised here in the US. Though I grew up in the Greek church and with many of the cultural traditions of Greece, we were also very much “Americanized.” With Souvla, I wanted to showcase many traditional aspects of Greek cuisine and culture, but make it very approachable and modern.
Q.You have described the concept of Souvla as “fine casual” it features the beloved, simple souvlaki and a selection of entirely Greek wines, offered in a space that combines minimal design and coziness. What has the response been since you opened?
Our goal was to create an affordable, approachable restaurant that was fast enough for take out but attractive enough to bring a date.
A. The fine casual distinction within the explosive fast casual space is important, and something we’re very passionate about championing here at Souvla. We’re bringing fine dining aesthetics, service standards, and detailed touch points to a counter service place. We also have a few steps of service that go above and beyond typical fast casual that make the experience feel special: we run and bus tables, have proper wine service, and we don’t have a menu board like a fast food spot. Our goal was to create an affordable, approachable restaurant that was fast enough for take out but attractive enough to bring a date. We’re grateful that the model has proven to be incredibly successful, and the response from the public has been overwhelming. The restaurant has been packed day and night since opening; our business has doubled in its first year and continues to grow. We serve over 600 people a day during the week, with that number growing to 800+ on the weekends. Those figures, of course, include takeout and delivery.
Q. How do you go about sourcing your products?
A. We’re very particular about our sourcing at Souvla. The majority of our meats and produce are ethically raised and sourced locally in California, and items like mizithra cheese, honey, and olive oil come from Greece. We’re the only restaurant in the country with a 100% Greek beverage list, with a strong focus on and passion for Greek wines. We also have a cool Greek beer from Zeos, Greek sparkling water, iced tea etc. As a principle, we look first for quality producers, but also are very aware of price point. We want to be able to serve the best quality products, and deliver great value in doing so.
Q. What are the most popular dishes at Souvla, and why do you think that is?
Souvla serves a modern interpretation of the classic gyro or souvlaki sandwich
A. Ironically, the salads are starting to outsell the sandwiches! Depending on the day, either the lamb sandwich or the chicken salad is the best seller. The salads are pretty hearty, but super-fresh and “clean.” They’re something you feel really good about eating, and could eat every day. In fact, we regularly see people coming in for lunch and return later for dinner! Our guests also obsess over our Greek fries, tossed with olive oil, sea salt, fresh herbs and mizithra. And our frozen Greek yogurt, served in the classic NY Cup the paper Greek coffee cups, is a big hit. Our most popular version is topped with crumbled baklava.
Q. What challenges did you face when you first opened Souvla?
We’re the only restaurant in the country with a 100% Greek beverage list
A. As I’m sure most first time small business owners will attest, raising money was a big challenge. The concept was totally new, and despite my background working for great restaurateurs, I was unproven as an operator. I pitched a lot of people, and despite the enthusiasm and support, it was tough to get people to actually invest. In the end, we were fortunate to find an incredible group of supporters, and we got everything together right before we opened. I’m so grateful for those early believers, and because of them we now have a popular, profitable business with a great future. The City of San Francisco doesn’t make it easy for small business owners either the amount of permits, fees, etc. are really mindboggling. The bureaucracy is on another level.
Q. How many people in the US are familiar with authentic Greek flavors?
A. I’d like to think that most people have a general familiarity with Greek food, but we love introducing Greek ingredients and traditions to our guests . The fact that we don’t serve traditional souvlaki or gyro both helps and hinders the process. Overall San Franciscans are very savvy they catch on quick.
Q. Ethnic flavors like Mexican, Chinese, Indian and more have been warmly embraced in the US, though Greek food has not reached that level of popularity yet. How do you see the market for Greek food at the moment?
A. We’re very excited to be where we are right now, because that market is wide open, especially here in the Bay Area. With Greece in the news every day, we’re finding that people really want to learn more about Greek food and culture.
Q. In the last few years, there has been a lot of hype about Greek yogurt in the US. Which Greek product do you think could be the next big thing in the US food market?
A. There are so many awesome products coming out of Greece, it’s hard to pick one. Honestly, I’m most excited to see Greek wine start gaining traction here in the US, and we’re all hoping that it too has it’s “Greek yogurt” moment soon!
Q. Americans have only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the very diverse culinary tradition of Greece, as Greek food seems to be all about souvlaki, spanakopita and baklava. Is there room for growth in this area, and do you see your menu expanding to introduce more Greek dishes in the future?
A. I certainly see room for growth here, but we first set out to modernize some of the items you just mentioned. We took some liberty with our menu, but we wanted bring about products that were inherently familiar, yet entirely new. For us, it was about studying the classics, then writing our own rules. As for expanding the menu, we’re planning to stay the course with the restaurant’s offerings. We do have some ideas for other opportunities in the future though…
Q. Given the popularity of Souvla, do you have any plans to expand to more locations in the future?
A. You bet! 2016 is going to be an exciting year. That’s all that I can say right now…