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Peter Parthenis: The Greek Who Made Gyros Popular in America

Grecian Delight Peter Parthenis
One of the first trucks during the first years of Grecian Delight, founded by Peter Parthenis Sr in 1974.

It was 50 years ago when Peter Parthenis founded Grecian Delight Inc., a company destined to change the American food industry. An immigrant from Vonitsa, Greece, Parthenis initially brought gyros to the masses and made his product one of most recognized Mediterranean food specialties in USA.

Today gyros are found on menus across the country, from dedicated Greek restaurants and food carts to fast-food chains. Some estimates have gyros appear on nearly half a million menus in the US.

From the inception of the gyros machine and making the Greek delicacy known to the vast American food market, to the introduction of countless Mediterranean offerings by Grecian Delight, Parthenis Sr. helped drive the burgeoning consumer demand for Mediterranean Foods in the US.

Parthenis lived in poverty in Greece

He was born in a small town called Vonitsa in 1945. But 40 days after his birth his father passed away. He was raised by his mother together with his two older sisters during hard times.

“For my mother, the biggest issue was where to find food for the three of us. We lived in a house no bigger than 500 sq. ft. with no electricity and no running water. Poverty means there was no bathroom inside the house, the bathroom was a hole in the garden,” he tells Greek Reporter.

“It was so much poverty that I remember my mother used to scream at me every time I went swimming. Why? Because when you go swimming, you exercise a lot and come back home hungry.”

Parthenis Sr. is proud of his Greek roots and the values his mother instilled in him during his upbringing. Apart from being a successful businessman, he is also an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Vice Chairman of the National Hellenic Museum among many other Greek and philanthropic institutions.

He makes sure to visit his village every year during the summer with his family to meet friends and relatives.

Greek values

“Despite the poverty, we did not have the negative elements in our society then,” he says.

“The values of respect and philotimo, to be generous with each other were instilled in us. Hard work, honesty, love and don’t do the wrong things.”

He notes that people who left Greece as immigrants to the US in the early 1960s had self-confidence. “All of us had a vision. All of us had guts. To leave your family, friends, and your hometown and go somewhere where you don’t know anybody. All you know is that there is opportunity there.”

Speaking to Greek Reporter he recalls the moving day his mother and two sisters came to Athens to wave him goodbye when he boarded the ship to New York almost 60 years ago. He struggles to keep back the tears “That was a moving day,” he says.

Moving to a new world in Chicago

“The first time I saw the world was in the American movies. When I saw the big streets, the beautiful huge cars I said I am going there, I am going to succeed. I am going to get one of these cars and bring it to the village. My eye was in America. I was focused on getting there, getting to Chicago,” he says.

He boarded the ship Queen Frederica with only 300 dollars in his pocket in 1964. He landed in New York and arrived in Chicago with two suitcases and a box two days later.

“To this day I do not know how I made it without a drink, without going to the restroom, and without any food for 18 hours. At night I used to work as a busboy and during the day I used to go to school,” he recalls.

“The hardship of growing up and comparing where you came from and where you wanna be helped us to shape our lives to become achievers, work harder and focus on our goals,” he tells Greek Reporter.

He graduated from college where he studied engineering and was looking to export American products to Greece. “Then the reverse happened when I saw the potential for market growth in America.”

Parthenis puts his engineering expertise to use fixing the gyros machine

Parthenis’ engineering skills soon came to good use when he identified a problem with the machine that many Greek restaurants he frequented in Chicago were using to prepare gyros.

“I used to go the Greek restaurants in Chicago and eat, and the owners would ask me to order parts for the rotisseries from Greece because those used to break down all the time,” Parthenis told Greek Reporter. “Finally, a year later or so, they asked me, can you design a machine that doesn’t break down.”

Before committing to the project, the intrepid Greek entrepreneur and engineer wanted to see whether gyros were popular in the US. After speaking with the Greek restaurant owners and getting a feel for the culinary landscape in the US, he was convinced it would be a good idea.

Initially, Parthenis was keen to invest the profits from his rotisserie business into a new automated carwashing business, but he soon found that the gyros were an even more lucrative business venture.

“I started by bringing a product from America to Greece and then the reverse happened when I saw the market and the profits from the Greek product that we brought to America then I forgot all about Greece and the carwashes,” Parthenis reflects.

Making Gyros popular across America: The Grecian Delight success story

Parthenis Sr. says that gyros was already popular in the Greek restaurants located around Halsted Street in Chicago in the early 1970s. “What we did is that we took gyros from Halsted Street and spread it throughout Chicago and years later through popular food shows we made it popular in the rest of America.”

He remembers that some experts in the food industry discouraged him claiming that gyros cannot become popular in the US. “I believed nobody. I believed what the Greek servers told me instead: Every party that sits down orders gyro as an appetizer or as the main course.”

“The most popular Greek dish in America is gyros”, he says proudly.

Grecian Delight Inc grew in the following years and as Parthenis Sr. says it never lost money a single month.

“Success is measured with money, and numbers but not only that. Are customers ecstatic about your product, do they talk about it? Do you receive respect as a human being or businessman? If you lose respect then the money does not have as much value,” he says.

The new era of Grecian Delight / Kronos with Peter Parthenis Jr. at the helm

Parthenis Gyros Grecian Delight
Grecian Delight and Kronos CEO Peter Parthenis Jr. with his father and Grecian Delight founder Peter Parthenis Sr. Credit: GDK

When Parthenis Sr started the company he did it all; he was the guy making the product, the sales calls, the deliveries. Today his creation, headed by his son, Peter Parthenis Jr., – has grown enormously and Grecian Delight is once again changing the food game in America.

“I had a lot of confidence in my son. I saw how methodical he is, how thorough, and good communicator, and how fair with the employees he is,” Parthenis Sr says about Parthenis Jr.

“Since he took over, he accelerated the growth of the company, produced a lot more products, and professionalized the management team. Those was a continuation of my management style.”

Pete Parthenis Jr., ensured that Grecian Delight would continue to grow through innovation, expanding its portfolio to a broader Mediterranean cuisine and a continued focus on convenient products for restaurants that are the highest quality and most authentic – including ReadyCarved® – that make preparation a snap.

Today, the company produces over 350 products, from gyros and ready-to-eat meats to pitas, specialty flatbreads, falafel, hummus, dips, and spreads, sold in over 50,000 locations in America. It has three production facilities in Chicago and employs almost one thousand people. Products are shipped throughout the US and abroad to Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Europe.

When Grecian Delight and Kronos merged in 2020, it was the vision of the Parthenis family and the investment partners, EP2, that brought these two companies together to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Their vision for Grecian Delight | Kronos was to expand their leadership in Greek, Mediterranean, and inspired world cuisine, aiming to have their delicious flavors served at every table or listed on menus worldwide.

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