Chris P. Tomaras is without a doubt a ‘Renaissance Man’. In fact, the Greek term, ‘Polymathes’, (having learned much) sums up this remarkable person very well, as he is a leader in various specialised fields and his expertise and knowledge spans a great number of years.
Chris P. Tomaras, moved to the states in 1958, where as a young man, he owned, leased and operated a number of establishments such as a sandwich shop, a drive-in and two pizza stores. His determination and experience in the food industry led him to the ‘Kronomatic’ broiler, a gyros broiler, he designed and patented himself. However, he is most well-known for the man behind ‘Kronos Foods empire, the largest Greek foods manufacturer in the U.S.A. Here in an in-depth interview, he talks about his roots, his early years in the states, his businesses and his life today:
Mr. Tomaras, please talk to us about your roots?
I was born in 1937, in Drapetsona, a small town at the edge of the port city of Piraeus, of two of the greatest people in the world; my father, Pavlos was born in the village of Karteroli in Messinia and my mother, Evdokia was born and raised in Constantinople. I had two younger siblings, my sister Helen who now lives in New York and the youngest, my brother Mike who died from an illness in 1995, in Chicago.
My father was a simple but wise man, one that cared deeply about his family and worked hard, with many sacrifices, to offer us “survival”, especially during the years of the Greek civil war upheaval. And my mother, the sweetest and the gentlest of human beings, with her cultured upbringing, offered us all she could give of her love while she could do it, until she passed away in 1946 by stray machine-gun fire, meant for my father whose political ideals of the time were not acceptable – just that – by a vicious opposing faction that destroyed most of the population’s civility and social fabric, during Greece’s civil war. My father remarried, to a fine woman who could not have children, mostly for the benefit of my siblings who, one of them an infant, needed motherly care.
What made you leave Greece?
Drapetsona, was a town that suffered a lot of pain and suffering, as it was one of those that received a large group of refugees – the result of the 1922 Greek-Turkish exchange – was one of blue color workers that did not have much to offer to its citizens then, unlike its current status as one of the most sought after developing areas because of its valuable real estate (seaside) location and its now well educated and sophisticated people. Six years of elementary school in Drapetsona and then another six in Piraeus and Athens Emporiki Scholi (high school equivalent) inspired and encouraged me to learn more about business and economics. What followed was entrance exams and attendance at the Anotati Emporiki, the Athens Graduate School of Economics and Business Sciences, its official name then, now the University of Economics, while doing all kinds of odd jobs in the evenings and summers.
With my simple young man’s wisdom and consultation with my father, it was decided that the future in Greece would have limited opportunities, especially for a family of no means. “America is the place to go” my father said and I, anxious for adventure and a lot more, wholeheartedly agreed. What followed was an enrollment at Columbia University in New York and in 1957 I embarked on a voyage that brought me to the New World. I had just under100 dollars in my pocket, a new suit and a lot of anxiety; these were my assets for my new venture as I stepped off the boat. I also had a sponsor, (necessary for the issuance of a visa), who lived in South Carolina whom I knew very little about.
Describe us the earlier days of your professional life…
After a short stay with some relatives, I moved around doing odd jobs so that I could meet the daily survival requirements. Certainly, there was no money for tuition and the sponsor support did not pan out. Language was an issue as well. All that postponed any ideas about going to school and, as a result, the time went by causing my student’s visa to expire. My status became illegal and the authorities had a job to do. This brought me to Birmingham, the largest city of the State of Alabama, a very beautiful and charming city of the South and certainly a good place to “hide” from the immigration authorities since Birmingham was no port where criminals like me normally congregate.
Odd jobs again, and then my first business venture. I was able to lease (not buy) the business of a small sandwich shop which I kept for three years. Within the same period, I used the same leasing scheme and operated a cocktail lounge and the famous ‘Dog’n’ Shake’drive-in. At the end of 5 years, the leases were up, but enough capital was accumulated for me to start a large pizza restaurant. Meanwhile I got married to Nancy, a fine Irish lady who for 48 years stayed by my side and supported all my moves –good and bad – until in 2007, she lost her battle with a serious illness. In 1965, we moved to Chicago, close to a very large and vibrant Greek Community and a city with a lot more opportunities than Birmingham. In the interim, my lengthy term as a resident in the U.S. had earned me (with many obstacles) the status of permanent resident and in 1963, I became a U.S. citizen.
The turning point in your life came with the invention of the gyros broiler. For those of us who don’t know, can you explain the “Kronomatic” broiler to us and why it was a brilliant concept at that time? What was the inspiration behind inventing the “Kronomatic” broiler?
First, the “gyros broiler” was not invented by me; it is a centuries old apparatus that cooks meats held on a vertical spit or skewer. The energy source can be firewood, coal, electricity or infrared gas. My contribution was a redesign of its appearance for which I hold a design patent. The Kronomatic is a gyros broiler totally different from its predecessors as well as others that succeeded it in later years. The need for a new design came from watching a few Greek restaurants in Chicago that served gyros (a handmade, non-uniform and actually unsightly product) cooked and served in an unsightly, awkward and just plain ugly broiler that came from a well known restaurant equipment manufacturer (whose name shall not be mentioned). Gyros was cooked and served in front of the customer and, if nothing else, the equipment cooking it should have character and an attractive looking design, it should be appetizing and certainly functional. That prompted me to design one, make a model and show it to some friends. The rest is history. I commissioned a sheet metal company to make several units, I secured a design patent and I started selling them to the restaurant operators who were eager to buy them. This was the reason and the inspiration for creating the Kronomatic…nothing mythical, thrilling or romantic, just good marketing sense and sensitivity for some artistic appearance.
Then, came Kronos Foods, which you saw grow into the largest Greek foods manufacturer in the U.S. How was the journey from building a meat processing plant that produced ready-made gyros meat to the Kronos Foods empire? Were you surprised that it became so incredibly successful?
The launching of the Kronomatic as a small business venture, alongside a couple of restaurants and a sports bar that I owned at the time, was also the beginning of Kronos Foods. Watching the users of the Kronomatic making by hand and selling an amorphous and uniform product, it had become evident that this line would some day become extinct. Using unorthodox methods of processing, with no one really knowing what they were doing, with public health code requirements not really observed, with tastes being different from shop to shop, it became apparent that an opportunity existed that should be capitalized on. If someone produced a high quality product with uniformity in appearance, taste, structure and performance, offered to both existing and potentially new operators, success would be very likely.
That was the start; a 2000 square foot (s.f.) plant and a few pieces of meat processing equipment got things going. After a number of failed attempts and a lot of learning, a product was made and the “Gyrokone” – another patented product- was introduced to the Chicago market, mostly to Greek restaurant operators. The idea became popular and the initial 1000 pounds per week in sales became 2000 and then 5000, and 20 years later, when I sold the company, the sales had increased to close to a million pounds per week along with the equivalent of other products such as pita bread, tzatziki sauce, Greek pastries and a number imported Greek foods sold to all sorts of food service establishments throughout the U.S. Thus the small 2000 s.f. leased meat plant had now become three company owned buildings totaling 250,000 s.f.
Of course, the popularity of Gyros was not my doing alone. The competition contributed significantly to the development of the market with major players being Grecian Delight Foods, Corfu Foods, Central Gyros and Olympia Foods, all formidable and respected competitors. In the course of development, in 1986 I acquired Central Gyros, and a sour cream company which made the basic ingredient for the Kronos tzatziki sauce. The company was renamed Kronos-Central Gyros Co. and it became the leader of the “Gyros industry” maintaining at all times an over 50% market share. And to answer your question about the surprise, when I looked back and remembered my humble beginnings, I was pleasantly surprised and thankful to all that helped me achieve those results: my supporting wife, my brother who worked by my side and a hard working management team together with the entire work force.
What do you think was the internal process by which “Kronos Foods” kept itself on the cutting edge of innovation under your guidance?
One distinguishing factor in the development of the company was the extensive marketing programs and the support offered directly to our customers (the restaurant operators) such as promotional POS materials, advertising aids and personalized assistance by our customer service representatives. In fact our slogan was “we create customers for our customers”. A big drawing card was the Kronomatic; it was offered on a leasing program for one dollar per day, instead forcing the customer to purchase it for over 1,000 dollars. Also, innovative products such as the introduction of the Gyro Loaves, the Gyro-Bobs and a number of portion control items that helped promote sales in schools and other mass feeding operations were responsible for staying ahead of the pack at all times.
What kind of Mediterranean delights/ Greek specialties does “Kronos Foods” produce?
At the time of the sale of the company in 1994, the product line included a full complement of Gyros and related products, a complete line of pita breads, a number of Greek food specialties such as spanakopita and tyropita, in various sizes and packs, as well as an extensive line of Greek pastries including baklava, flogeres, kataifi and others. After all it was a Greek company, wasn’t it? After the sale and in the 17 years that followed, Kronos continued its level of market share and added more products by acquiring another pastry products manufacturing company in Los Angeles which, among its fancy chocolate and pistachio baklava and other Mediterranean specialties, its flagship item has been the manufacturing of a variety of phillo dough. Additionally, Kronos expanded its pita products line with a significant conquest in the pizza industry.
Tell me about ‘Kronos Free Gyros Day’ in Chicago.
A truly ingenious marketing scheme! Kronos took full page ads in the two largest Chicago papers which it offered a coupon for free Gyros sandwich, redeemable at any restaurant that displayed on its window large Kronos posters, supplied by Kronos. A list of the restaurants was also included in the ad. A customer would go and redeem the coupon on which he wrote his name, address, e-mail, etc. At the end of the promotion, the coupons were turned in to Kronos by the restaurant operator who received credit from Kronos for the cost of the sandwich. The operator was happy because Kronos created an opportunity for his restaurant to be exposed to a plethora of new customers. The customers were happy because they received a free product, but the biggest beneficiary of all was kronos which not only brought its products and name once again to the forefront, but it craeted a very valuable name list which could be used for ant promotional announcements in the future. Simple and brilliant!
You owned the company for 20 years. How did it feel when you sold it to set up Tomaras Investments?
I did not sell Kronos to set up an investment company, but to retire and have time to do other things, one of which was to get involved in the Greek Community and offer my compatriots my time and support, thus showing my gratitude for the support I had received as I was starting out and when I needed it. That was what prompted me to get involved in the Council of Hellenes Abroad (ΣΑΕ) and for 11 years serve the Greek Community as its Vice President for North and South America (a 5 times elected position). Retirement then was also the motive for the establishment of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation through which I give scholarships to Greek American students to support them and help them become the leaders of tomorrow. The establishment of Tomaras Investments was necessary as a vehicle for me to continue to earn an income and be able to pursue my other goals.
Nancy, your wife has been involved in all your ventures from the beginning. Can you say a few words about her?
Only a few words? I can talk about Nancy for hours. But I will be brief. Nancy was a wonderful lady, from Ireland. We got married in 1959 and all the years we were married she offered me her love and care, her compassion and comfort, her loyalty and support. What else can a man ask for from a wife? All the years she worked with me side by side, always supporting my actions, especially my various business moves, never complaining about the daring ones – which were in most cases the losers – always accepting the results as “part of Chris’ efforts to succeed” The mother of two kids, she loved them dearly and the three of us offered her the same love, compassion and care to the very end of her days, when the serious illness I mentioned earlier took her away in March 2007. There will never be another woman with Nancy’s virtues and character.
I always believe that employees are worth a mention too. What can you tell me about the people you have employed over the years?
They were a great team and I relied greatly on their skills and their support. Most important, their loyalty and commitment to our goals made them great performers and producers of excellent results. Having said that, I repeat once again my appreciation and gratitude to all my employees and especially the top level of the management team like Ron Follett, Mike Burns, Nick Nichols, Elaine Werges, Dee Katsoulis and many others. Above all, I owe a lot to my younger brother who ran the bakery operations. He died at the age of 50, one year after the company was sold.
What decided you to go from food manufacturing to investments and real estate?
In a simple answer, a vessel was needed to park the proceeds of the sale at first which in the course of time developed into a private investment company. It was an easy but also necessary decision at the time and not something planned and calculated for years.
What kinds of companies or particular technologies are you most interested in now?
If you are asking for a tip, I won’t give you one; only because if it does not prove right for you I will have done you a disservice. I am not an expert and I too, rely on the advice of those who are experts. But sometimes I do better than they do. My response to your question would be companies who are involved in new age technology like hologram, as this is the next generation of human communication and marketing. Also, we see today a world of consumer opportunities from spirited companies who realize huge profits while providing marketing benefits to the merchant community; however, I question their longevity.
And I have to ask… Would you invest your money in Greece under the present economic crisis?
Unfortunately, no. I have invested in the past and lost. I realized some gains in some activities and lost a lot more on some others. The major reason was the indecisiveness of the government and its lack of stability in its policies, as they pertain to certain developing industries and the excessive bureaucracy applied in the way of doing business. The same and worse exist today. And as much as I, and many others, want to do business in Greece the current (established) operating environment renders the idea foolish.
What do you think about Barrack Obama and Joe Biden’s plans to revitalize the economy?
Obama is very smart and very capable, but his decisions are politically driven, as is the case with most politicians. He has all the traits of a competent leader and I believe he will eventually manage to bring about significant changes that will benefit the economy. Let us not forget that he was able to avert the 2nd largest catastrophic recession in this country; he saved America’s auto industry also AID and with that he saved thousands of jobs; he reduced the cost of health-care (to the dislike of those whose interests were affected) and managed to bring into the system many people who did not have any health-care coverage at all. He supports the middle class, but he is also aware that without the support of the capital very little will happen. To that end, he focuses on budget cuts so that there will be room for lower taxes; so that there will be incentives to the business community for more investments; so that there will be new jobs created since the key to our economic correction (if not survival) is creating new “jobs”. Along with that, the Stimulus program will help to make all this happen. Of course, so far, very little of that is working. Hopefully, it will happen in his next term which, I am confident, he will win. Would I vote for him? Not if there was someone else with a better program, Democrat or Republican, but as of this moment I see no one on the horizon. As for Biden, he is a crafty politician, very talkative and less substantive. He is not an Obama.
What are some of the biggest future issues still to be faced?
The Euro zone instability and its lack of organizational discipline which in the end may allow hegemonic republics to prevail; the excessive U.S. debt that may have self-destructive effects similar to the great depression of the last century; the simmering upheaval that threatens a complete shake up of the Arab world and its unstable dictatorships and possibly a new world order coming from the Far East with an economic superiority that will affect the entire world.
Give me your thoughts regarding the Greek government’s idea of selling off billions of dollars of state assets, such as banks, highways and state-owned companies.
If I was to answer driven by my emotions and pride the answer would be “that it is an act of treason”. But I am a realist and a businessman and I know when I borrow money I must have already planned the repayment of the loan. In this case, nothing like this happened and even though I know many conscientious people realized the danger and advised the political leadership accordingly, the “great” political leaders ignored such advice. Now the time has come to pay that ‘loan’ and although it hurts emotionally, it has to happen. It a true shame, but I would silently accept it.
Do you and your family take vacations in Greece? Has it changed considerably over these past years?
Trips have been frequent over the years for both business and pleasure as I love dearly all that Greece has to give (and take), all of which can be delivered through one single word, the Greek «θαλπωρή», the warmth that is emitted in the air of the evening dusk, the hospitable offerings of the people everywhere, addressing you in plural, the tasty mezethakia at the small taverna that exists almost only at the pleasure of a few friends and the taste of a glass of wine sitting on the balcony of my home in Palaio Faliro, overlooking the calm waters beyond the yachts at the Floisvos marina. All these things have not changed. What has changed is the social climate driven by political greed and corruption, the downward economic trend responsible largely for the degradation of the character and the integrity of the citizenry, the total social upheaval, caused by the unionized labor (in most cases wholly inexcusable) and the lack of safety in the streets due to the influx of so many unfortunate foreign people who, for their survival, resort to crime. Yes, things have changed. This is not my Greece, and I am deeply sorry for what has happened.
You have been recognized a number of times for your sense of honor, integrity and your commitment to civic duty, including with the ‘Ellis Island Medal of Honor’ and also being named ‘Distinguished Greek American.’ How would you describe yourself and your beliefs?
It’s difficult to take stock of yourself and present it to others. But I’ll try. I am a simple man and a private person. I do not need a lot to feel fulfilled. I work many hours a day because I find myself productive this way and to me productivity is achievement. I expect the same from my associates and I appreciate those who do it. I am straight forward in my dealings and keep my word in all promises I make. I consider integrity to be my most valuable asset and I respect those that demonstrate the same about themselves. I get emotional easily, especially in personal matters, but I am also hard if I suspect I am being cheated. I treat people with dignity and respect even when they don’t deserve it. I care deeply about my relatives and close friends although I don’t have many. I am not a frequent church goer, but I appreciate and support the Greek Orthodox Church in America for its contribution through its spiritual work, but also for being the only institution that has been able to keep the Greek American Community together and preserve Hellenism in America. One other organization, AHEPA, has done an equally significant job in that area but is now losing its effectiveness because of the old age and attrition of its membership. I help others when I can and feel bad when I cannot. I dress conservatively as a businessman should.
You are also the founder of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation (PHSF). Can you explain your role and what the foundation is about?
This foundation is a non-profit institution that offers scholarships to Greek American university students and has a single mission: to promote education by which Greek American students become significant achievers and, guided by the values of their Hellenic upbringing, contribute meaningfully to the ongoing development of the American society. Its goal is to help build a better America through education and Hellenism and, in that spirit, help strengthen the civic fabric and deliver enlightened and engaged citizens.
The Foundation has been in existence since 1998, founded as my last act in constructive projects during my tenure as resident of the Panmessenian Federation of USA and Canada, and was named Panmessenian Scholarship Foundation. Its purpose was to offer scholarships to students of Messenian descent but soon it was abandoned by the succeeding leaderships for the fact that not enough Messenian students existed at the time that would qualify. I then took it over and changed its scope by offering scholarships to all Greek American students regardless of their roots. I also changed its name to PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation (PHSF), established a new Board and for the last 10 or so years this foundation has recognized hundreds of students for their excellent academic performance and helped them financially to continue their studies that otherwise they might not have.
Every year, at a highly regarded black tie gala event, we distribute $250,000 in scholarships. The recipients must first meet the high academic performance requirements that our independent academic committee has established and then 40 are selected to receive the awards. Of these, 20 students with financial need, receive $10,000 each and another 20 students from wealthier families receive $2,500 each, because they too must be recognized for their effort and their academic achievements.
In selecting these recipients, we believe that they are armed with excellent education first but also with strong moral values, received from their upbringing, so that they have the potential to succeed in their future endeavors and become tomorrow’s leaders and in many ways contributors to the American society.
Which of all your achievements are you most proud of?
I don’t know how an act or a development in one’s life can be characterized as “an achievement to be proud of” but if there is one such thing in mine, I cannot grade my own work. Be it as it may, if we are talking about some degree of success in business, I would think Kronos Foods would carry such a distinction. And if we are talking about personal satisfaction and fulfillment, the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation certainly makes the grade as it gives me the opportunity to watch and follow the fruit of this effort in the successes and accomplishments of the kids we recognized, encouraged and helped over the years.
If you were starting out in business today, would you do anything differently?
Yes, perhaps by not making some rash moves, but I would study, calculate and plan these moves better so as to eliminate some wasteful and costly experiences. But if anyone is listening, this should not scare or deter any initiatives. On the contrary, the definition of a successful businessman is the one who takes chances and capitalizes on opportunities when they appear but go forward after careful calculation and planning so as to minimize the risk.
Do you consider a successful entrepreneur to be someone who has built a profitable business?
Profit is the objective of any business venture and the one who delivers it is considered a successful businessman. However, in order to rate as such, you also need to have integrity, consideration for others around you, and don’t allow the success go to your head, especially in an entrepreneurial environment.
What encouraging words or advice would you give to Greek & American youth today?
Today’s economic environment may bring disappointment, even a degree of depression to our young people who are looking to go forward in life. This is natural when continuing adversities surround you regardless of the times or what the causes might be. But the times change, the dark night passes and daylight comes. It is as sure as that. All you have to do is believe it and that daylight will eventually arrive. Don’t keep your head down, always look up, and you will see that light. Keep your hopes up and the opportunities will come to you, so long as you have faith in yourself and your abilities, have confidence in yourself and thus know that when the opportunity pops up you will be there to grab it. And grab it you will because not only are you skillful and knowledgeable but you are also a person that lives by certain values, values and principles that give you strength and character and distinction. They are embedded in your nature, and if they are not, make them be. They will guard and protect you all your life and they will always, always, be your best friends: You recognize them, don’t you? Here they are: Ethos, integrity, responsibility, high work ethic, respect for the rule of law, the will to succeed, and others that will be your own traits and attributes.
Tell me about the ‘Sweet Tea Restaurant’ and how you spend your time nowadays?
I don’t know how you know about it, but ‘Sweet Tea’ is a small adventure for me, a means to relax by going back to my beginnings, a vehicle through which I connect with my past. I saw an opportunity in a building that I own in downtown Birmingham that has been empty for some time and opened a restaurant. Being in Birmingham, the heart of the South, I named it “Sweet Tea” after the great desire of the Southerners to drink sweet ice tea with all their meals and several times in between; in fact sweet ice tea is so popular it has been named “the house wine of the South”.
The restaurant is in its infancy and it is doing well. I go there a few days a month and I find myself doing things that I like: I talk to customers, experiment with new recipes in the kitchen, coordinate marketing moves and, if nothing else, I get to spend some time away from the sitting at a desk. It’s good for me.
Finally, my own personal question… Can a gyro filled with delicious creamy cucumber sauce (Tzatziki), really taste as good in Chicago, than here in downtown Athens?
It tastes better in Chicago. It is all, as you are suggesting, in the Tzatziki!!! Chicagoenjoys Tzatziki, especially the Kronos product, made with a yogurt-sour cream sauce, filled with lots – and I mean lots – of fresh, chopped cucumbers, fresh, chopped garlic and other seasonings. This kind of Tzatziki delivers a gyro that tantalizes all your senses and stays (especially on your breath) for 24 hours, so that you can say “I really enjoyed that”. Can the Greeks in Athens offer such a delicacy? I don’t think so; maybe the Greeks in the States can show them how.
Thank you, Mr. Tomaras for an interesting interview and a chance to learn more about the man who is known as ‘Gyros king’.