Tasos and Beba Touloupis keep their Greek culture alive through food
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
In the early 20th century, almost half a million Greeks emigrated to America, leaving their home country’s unrest behind in search of opportunity. Thanks to an easier entry level (not much education or English proficiency necessary), many found work in the restaurant industry. You can still taste this trend all over Alabama, which boasts a long list of eateries started by Greek immigrants and now owned by their descendants. And it's particularly concentrated in and around the state’s largest city, Birmingham.
From long-established spots such as 114-year-old Bright Star (in nearby Bessemer) and Niki’s West; to relative newcomers such as Johnny’s, a fresh take on classic meat and three joints (owned by chef Tim Hontzas, cousin to the owners of Niki’s West), multiple restaurants with owners and chefs of Greek background are combining their Hellenic heritage with Southern staples.
At Ted’s Restaurant, a meat and three in downtown Birmingham, the blissful marriage of Greek and Magic City food cultures draws diners daily at breakfast and lunchtime. They peruse the steam table where regional standards such as mac and cheese and black-eyed peas are lined up next to Greek potatoes and pastitsio, a rich tiered pasta. Open since 1973, the restaurant’s five decades of prosperity are built on this fusion of flavors.
But the recipe for success here includes more than what’s going into people’s mouths; the boundless and vibrant brand of welcome proffered by owners Tasos and Beba Touloupis is essential too. Tasos came to the United States from Thessaloniki, Greece. Beba grew up in the Bahamas with her Greek immigrant parents. “We are friendly with all, and I am a real person-to-person person,” Tasos says. It’s true. Everyone at Ted’s gets a greeting from Tasos as he makes his way around the cozy dining space, stopping for chats with regulars (of whom there are many) and pausing with a quick, “Hello, how are you doing?” for anyone else. “I think it makes the atmosphere relaxing but energetic too,” he says.
While hospitality is often deemed “a Southern thing,” Tasos makes it clear our region can’t claim exclusivity. The Greek commitment to welcome—and using food to express it—goes back centuries, as he explains. “It is part of who we are throughout our 3,000 years of history. We Greeks believe that when we meet a stranger, we should sit down and eat; we should break bread together,” he says. “When we celebrate life over good food and good wine, we quickly become friends. Dining together is our hospitality.”
The blended Southern-Greek culinary customs topped with the Greek-meets-Southern hospitality found at Ted’s began with the eatery’s original owner, Ted Sarris. Mr. Ted (as patrons called him) was a member of one of Birmingham’s large Greek bloodlines that boasts several other branches of its family tree also in the local restaurant business. The way Greek influence has flourished in Birmingham’s restaurant scene points to another similarity that
Southern and Greek traditions share: strong family ties. Just a handful of immigrants started in the food industry in the city, bringing in siblings, cousins, children, and other relatives, who eventually moved on and opened their own spots.
Tasos and Beba happen to be an exception to this trend; both came to America to further their educations—Tasos has an aerospace engineering degree from the University of Alabama, and Beba got her psychology degree there—and were without relatives in Birmingham. But Mr. Ted made them feel like family. The couple never thought about the restaurant business until Mr. Ted was nearing retirement and asked them if they were interested in buying the place.
They were, and they did. That was 20 years ago, and continuing Mr. Ted’s legacy may not be rocket science, but it’s certainly hard work. Work ethic was another cultural character trait the Greeks who came to Birmingham brought with them. It served them well. Mr. Ted came from Tsitalia, Greece, in 1955 and bought the Old Hickory Restaurant from his uncle in 1960 after working there a few years. He changed the name to Ted’s and moved it to its downtown location in 1973. “His is the true immigrant story,” says Tasos. “Mr. Ted finished third grade, and came here, and with hard work bought out his uncle, bought land, built a new restaurant, and ran it for his family until 2000.”
Some of Ted’s current customers are likely unaware of the eatery’s interesting origin story, and they enjoy the convivial atmosphere, but it’s still the food that keeps them coming. Tasos believes quality ingredients play a big part. “When I bought the place, Mr. Ted took me to the farmers market and said, ‘This is how you do it. You do not get vegetables from some vendor. You go to the farmer and pick it out yourself.’ We have never deviated from that, and people can taste it.” This farm-to-table philosophy is evident in the squash casserole, in the roasted sweet potatoes, and in the collard greens (the Southern dish that won Tasos’ heart the first time he ate at Ted’s).
But the same commitment to quality applies to investment of time and mastery of technique, something deliciously detectable in the Greek dishes on the menu, such as the souvlakia, which Tasos deems “Greek barbecue.” “It’s pork shoulder marinated in olive oil and oregano, skewered and grilled,” he says. “As I understand it, we’re the only restaurant in Birmingham serving it.”
Beba is proud of Ted’s pastitsio that’s available a few times each week. “Ours has been passed down in our family from generation to generation and is a very authentic Greek dish,” she says. “It’s Greek comfort food.” And it’s a labor of love, layering multiple elements of Greek ethos in one pan. “It’s like something the ya-ya, or Greek grandmother, made in a Greek home. She’d spend hours in the kitchen to do it for her family, and that’s a vivid memory for many Greeks,” Tasos says. “And that’s what we give our guests, the gift of putting our effort and passion into their meal.”
Ted’s and Birmingham’s other Greek-owned restaurants are giving customers the opportunity to broaden their perspectives too. “We’re not all serving only Greek food, but the Greek is there—the lemon, the oregano, the garlic,” Tasos says. “And that gives people a way to explore other places, another culture.” Tasos often encourages customers to speak a little Greek. “I love getting people to say the dishes in our language. Food is really the number one way to bring different things together,” he says.
It’s becoming commonplace in Birmingham, according to Beba. “We have seen more international presence and flair in Birmingham in the last few years, and that is really great because we are such a foodie city, and people are using food to explore. Once you accept a new flavor, that leads to wider acceptance in general. And it just spreads.”
She and Tasos feel fortunate to figure into this movement, and the couple remains focused on the future. “It’s so rewarding to carry on this place that’s been here since 1973,” Beba says. “It can be a challenge, and we see it as a major responsibility, but it is a real honor too.”
Not letting Ted’s founder or its loyal fans down has kept the couple going during the many struggles of COVID-19. “It’s important to me to keep the comfort of Ted’s coming for those who I know want it and need it, so while the pandemic has been rough, we never closed,” Tasos says. And they made additions in an attempt to close the revenue gap caused by limited capacity in their dining room and a complete loss of catering business in 2020, adding a Saturday brunch that’s proven popular so far. “We will keep working to keep the meat and three history and the traditions started by those first Greek families—like Sarris and Hontzas and others—alive,” Beba adds. “This is much more than just a job for us; it’s a way to pay homage to those who’ve gone before.”