Thursday kicks off the annual Birmingham Greek Food Festival, which will run through Saturday at the Holy Trinity + Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral on 19th Street South. To recognize the festival, CBS 42 is looking back on the history of Birmingham’s Greek community and some of its many contributions to the city.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – “Is there anything Greek about it?”
Amy Evans wanted to get to the bottom of a serious question many who grew up in Birmingham had: what was in Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis’ special hot dog sauce? In 2004, Evans got her opportunity conducting a two-day interview with the famed owner of the former Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs on Second Avenue North for an oral history she was compiling for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
“Anything Greek,” Koutroulakis repeated.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me, I guess.”
Despite visiting Greece only twice – 1965 and 1995– before he died in 2011, Koutroulakis was seen by many in the community as a real Greek, a part of a vital community that has made an undeniable mark in Birmingham over the last 120 years.
There is some dispute over who the first Greek to come to Birmingham was. By the 1880s, many people were leaving Greece due to a struggling economy that had failed to adapt to the industrial age. In Sofia Petrou’s 1979 book “A History of the Greeks in Birmingham,” it was believed that George Cassimus, a “sea-faring man,” was the first to make his way to the city in 1884. Other accounts have John Kalamares arriving in 1883.
However, it was Cassimus who by Petrou’s account started the first Greek-owned business in Birmingham, an unnamed “fish eating place.” It would not be long before more Greeks came to the city. By 1900, there were over 100 Greeks in the city, making it one of the largest communities in the Southeast. Within 10 years, that number would grow to over 500.
Petrou wrote that the majority of Greek families that came in the first wave of immigration to Birmingham came from the country’s Peloponnesian area, as well as the islands of Corfu, Samos and Rhodes. Over the years, many Greeks settled on the Southside, especially on Cullom Street, as well as the Norwood community.
Originally taking up jobs in the steel mills that were available at the time, it would not be long before Greeks began starting their own businesses, mostly in restaurants, but also bars and fruit stands. The latter was the community’s first foray into business.
“The majority of the early Greek immigrants in Birmingham found a lucrative business in sidewalk fruit stands,” Petrou wrote. “This type of small business allowed the Greek immigrant to assert the economic independence that had eluded him in Greece. All he needed was a small capital investment, usually acquired from his former homeland, and knowledge of the product he was selling.”
However, the move into restaurants was a move that has continued to affect Birmingham.
“Despite the small number of Greeks in the South, and because a significant portion of them entered the food service industry, the Greek immigrant community had a disproportionate influence on public food culture in the 20th Century South,” according to the 2013 book, “The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South.”
Greeks operated many different restaurants, some that are still open, such as Gus Hontzas’ Niki’s West, Demetri Nakos’ Demetri’s BBQ and Tim Hontzas’ Johnny’s in Homewood, as well as Tom Bonduris’ Bright Star in Bessemer.
For hot dog lovers, Greeks had a notable contribution to Birmingham cuisine with the “Birmingham dog,” slathered in mustard, onions, kraut and “special sauce” and perfected by the likes of Koutroulakis, Gus Alexander of Gus’ Hot Dogs or John Collins, and later his son, Andrew, of the Lyric Hot Dogs and Grill.
While many people in Birmingham today recall notable Greek residents like Koutroulakis or Fish Market’s George Sarris, there are many others most Birmingham natives would likely not know. Take “Banana King” Alex Kontos, who arrived in town in 1888 and went on to become the only distributor of bananas in Birmingham, or Gus Jebeles, owner of the Birmingham Barons during the 1940’s.
Another obscure figure in the Greek community was George Kontos, who ran the Lamb Bone Restaurant on Fifth Avenue North and claimed to have predicted the outbreak of WWII by reading lamb bones. Petrou also highlighted Bill Demoes, whom she considered the first chef to introduce Greek cooking to Birmingham during the 1920’s with Bill Demoes’ Restaurant.
In Niki Sepsas’ “Hellenic Heartbeat in the Deep South: A History of the Greek Community in Birmingham, Alabama,” Aleck Gulas was noted for starting the Key Club, one of the first Birmingham nightclubs to feature black jazz musicians in the 1950’s.
From 1996 to 1998, Frank Theodore Kanelos served as the poet laureate of Birmingham.
However, the Greek community was not always welcome in some parts of the city.
“Greeks were sometimes asked to sit in the black sections of restaurant establishments and were discouraged from seeking housing in certain parts of Birmingham,” Petrou wrote.
In fact, some Greeks were encouraged to change their names in order to not appear ethnically different. In Petrou’s book, Birmingham attorney Jerry Lorant said his father was advised he’d go farther if he changed his name from Lorantzatos to Lorant.
By 1935, the Greek community had grown so big that a newspaper was started, The Grecian Press, written by them and for them.
“Alabama now had a newspaper that specialized in featuring news of the local Greek community, as well taking place around the country and the world.”
However, one of the community’s greatest lasting contributions is the Holy Trinity + Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the oldest Greek Orthodox church in the city. Originally, it started out as a small wooden building a Greek group purchased from First United Methodist Church in 1906.
Ask Andrew Collins what it means to be Greek and he’ll say it’s just a certain feeling of knowing he and his family are part of a long heritage.
“There’s just no other way I can describe it,” said Collins, owner of Collins Bar. “It’s a very prideful thing when you’re Greek. You’re just born into it.”