Amphora Group: Building a business and a family

See accompanying article in March/April VivaTysons.

Founders Louis Cholakis and George Bilidas had a simple dream back in 1962 – to open their own neighborhood restaurant providing fresh high-quality food at reasonable prices. After 50+ years of tireless work and family involvement, that dream has developed into a successful multi-unit business including Amphora Restaurant, Amphora’s Diner Deluxe in Herndon, Amphora Catering, and Amphora Bakery, and employing over 200 people.

Both George and Louis emigrated from villages outside Sparta, Greece, in the mid-1950’s. After some years learning the trade by washing dishes and waiting on tables at restaurants up and down the East Coast, they settled in Washington, D.C. Their dream of owning a restaurant became a reality in 1962 when they pooled all their resources and bought the Rollin Road Restaurant, one of the few food establishments in Vienna, Virginia at that time. (Rollin Road Restaurant was located across from the Vienna Inn.) Louis worked behind the scenes in the kitchen, while George was the front man concentrating on pleasing the customers. Borrowing from the traditional neighborhood “tavernas” experience back in their Grecian villages, the Bilidas-Cholakis team offered fresh daily specials and got to know all their regular customers. This approach proved very effective.

By the mid-1970’s the Rollin Road had garnered a core of regular customers and Cholakis and Bilidas decided to expand. Amphora Restaurant was born in December 1977, a 24-hour, 7-day establishment offering a wide variety of freshly prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu items available all day. The name Amphora, a two-handled ancient Greek food storage vase, was chosen to harken back to the owners’ Greek roots. An informal survey of local customers revealed that the word, diner, conjured up images different from those that George and Louis envisioned, so it was intentionally left out of the restaurant’s name.

As was common with most diners, the restaurant was prefabricated by a diner manufacturer in New York, trucked to Vienna in eight pieces, and assembled on site. The sections were set on big timbers covered with Ivory soap and were slid into place. All that was needed was to connect the plumbing and electricity and the restaurant could open. The booths, kitchen, and everything else were in place in their sections. Even today, if one goes into the basement, they can see marks of truck grease made when the sections were removed from the trucks.

From the start, Amphora was popular with all ages and demographic groups. After almost forty years, the restaurant is a Vienna landmark and has earned many accolades for great food over the years.

Louis and George followed old school values and work ethics and the children were all indoctrinated into the business at an early age, often working 7 days a week as they got older. Louis’s son, George, remembers washing dishes in elementary school. He also recalls that in high school, he might have a night off when he would get to go out with friends. Somehow Louis would always need his son’s help early the next morning to make sure he got out of bed.

Another “colorful” story comes from Maria, Louis’s daughter and current managing partner. Maria was actually fired as a server at one point in 1978. She was working on prom night (as her conservative parents had not allowed her to go to the prom). She was waiting on a prom couple, however, and was delivering their Chicken Parmesan and Spaghetti Bolognese to their table when the tray shifted and the dinners landed on the girl’s white dress and the fellow’s light-colored tux.

Later when Maria was in college she was again banned from the restaurant because she had adopted a punk rocker style and her parents felt that the townsfolk would be uncomfortable around her.

Since its inception, desserts have been a big business at Amphora. The freshly baked cakes and pies were in such demand that it seemed like a natural step to expand. The Amphora Bakery was opened in 1989 as a small outpost selling a selection of cakes, pastries, and pies available only at the restaurant. It has since grown into a considerable retail and wholesale operation in Herndon employing a team of 20 pastry chefs. Artistry is the goal. European in style, Amphora Bakery offers a wide selection of award-winning cakes, French pastries, pies, cookies, along with custom creations and wedding cakes. It’s inspiring to go to the bakery at Christmas to see the children creating gingerbread creations at one of their special events.

In the 1990’s founders Louis Cholakis and George Bilidas retired, handing over the reins to their children, Steve Bilidas, George Cholakis, and Maria Cholakis. All were eager to take over the operation, building upon the solid foundation laid by their parents while also creating a new vision for the future.

This new vision included a full-service catering department, which would complement existing group operations and utilize the resources readily available at the restaurant and bakery. Today Amphora Catering has grown into a leading corporate and social caterer in the D.C. metro area. Amphora Catering events include everything from an intimate brunch for 10 to a wedding for 600. There can be up to four events in a weekend during wedding season. Events might be indoor, outdoor, under a tent, even on a farm. One firm has done a barbeque event for 1500.

In 1997, the Cholakis and Bilidas families embarked on another huge undertaking. Amphora’s Diner Deluxe, a 16,000-square-foot building with a seating capacity of 300 and a private banquet room. The facility also encompasses an on-premises bakery capable of supplying all the locations under the Amphora umbrella with breads and other retail items. Another 24-hour, 7-day restaurant, Amphora’s Diner Deluxe has received accolades including “Best Late Night Dining” and “Best Sunday Brunch” from Washingtonian magazine readers.

The family recently found out Amphora was mentioned in Hell’s Corner, a book by local author, David Baldacci. Apparently the restaurant, with its 24-hour policy was once a favorite meeting spot for certain quiet meetings with CIA and other organizations.

Amphora is a spot to meet and socialize, a communal gathering place. Being a Greek restaurant, Amphora has always been a comfortable gathering place for many in the Greek community to see friends. Louis points out, “And you could have breakfast or dinner anytime. We’d see musicians from Wolf Trap as well as Wolf Trap attendees arriving after the show. We’d even get them on their way home from the Kennedy Center.”

The menu has evolved over the years. When it opened it was similar to a New York style diner. The menu has changed with the times to become more global, even offering new items like Tex-Mex burritos for breakfast, always adapting to changing demographics. Plus the area’s “palate” demands more, expecting bold flavors and fresh ingredients. This has been easy to accommodate as the restaurant has always had a chef creating specials from scratch, with original sauces and bases.

Now the third generation of family also works at the restaurant. For example, Maria’s son started as a busboy and is now a server. To date he has not spilled any meals on his diners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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