A Greektown gamble

May 17, 2006 at 12:00 am

Vassos and Eleni Avgoustis opened Cyprus Taverna to raves in the early '90s. To those who used to suspect that there was only one kitchen in Greektown that prepared food for all of the restaurants and delivered it through a system of underground tunnels, Cyprus offered several new dishes and different versions of the old standards. Some of Greektown's problems now threaten to change the city's culinary landscape. Vassos shares some thoughts about Greektown's future.

Metro Times: Greektown seems to be changing.

Vassos Avgoustis: When casinos were brought here they were supposed to help us out, to give us something. They offered to give vouchers to their customers for use in area restaurants. We have to give back 10 percent to the casino. Unfortunately we, as members of the Greektown Merchants Association, agreed. So they came here and took all the parking lots. The city parking was taken away from us. Now we have lost most of the regulars, the customers, the families, who had been coming here, having a good time, for years. And now the state Gaming Board wants me to have a gaming supplier license to sell shish kebob and lunches. Why do I need to have a license? Already it has cost me $9,000 in investigation fees plus $15,000 in attorney fees. And they took the "comps" — the casino vouchers — away from us. [Cyprus was one of four restaurants kicked out of the voucher program after the Michigan Gaming Control Board alleged violations, including tax problems in the case of Cyprus. Avgoustis says those have since been cleared up, and the board is considering a deal to return the eateries to the program.]

MT: This was part of an agreement made between the merchants and casino in exchange for supporting the Greektown casino?

Avgoustis: Right. Now we have lost the vouchers and the city is considering selling the parking structure across the street to the casino for a permanent location. It will take a year or year and a half to build it. Where will people park? Without parking we could lose everything.

MT: Do you think that the city fails to realize the intrinsic value of Greektown and what it means to Detroit's allure and to the city's reputation?

Avgoustis: Absolutely. We have been here for over 100 years. We have worked hard day and night to save downtown Detroit. My wife and I worked for someone else for 20 years and put everything we had into this place. Now we are afraid of losing everything. Without the vouchers and with the lack of parking, my business has suffered and it is hard for me to pay my bills. The vouchers brought us a lot of business. When the Super Bowl was here, Detroit looked great. People were here from all over the country, the world. Many of them came to Greektown. I have received many letters from people thanking Cyprus Taverna and Greektown and Detroit, saying, "We will be back. You make us feel at home."

MT: Who is at fault here, the city or the casino?

Avgoustis: First of all, I blame the gaming board. I have been to court about 20 times. I am treated like a criminal. It doesn't make sense. I've been here for 14 years and I've always given something back to the community. I've been feeding the homeless. When I came to the United States in 1962 to join my brother, the train was delayed in New York for about eight hours. I did not speak the language, a stranger, hungry. All of a sudden a lady came up and gave me coffee and a sandwich. I said to myself that I would repay this by helping others. When my wife and I got our own restaurant, with God's help, we decided that it was the time to give something back by feeding the homeless.

MT: What effect do the homeless people who are panhandling have on your customers?

Avgoustis: It hurts our business. People feel harassed. We want them out of here, but we have a relief fund to help them. Every Thanksgiving we serve dinner to the homeless. It is part of giving back. We have all kinds of people who volunteer to help us serve the food, even some children, who realize how lucky we are to be on the other side, want to help.

MT: I see that you have a sign in the window: "Free Saganaki."

Avgoustis: Business is so bad. We need to draw people in. It's a shame. We need some help. Hopefully the gaming board will help us. I think they will. One Super Bowl every 20 years isn't enough to sustain us.

MT: What else has changed in Greektown? What has caused the changes?

Avgoustis: Trappers Alley brought a lot of people to the area for a while, but it did not last. The economy now is impacting us negatively. The problems at the fireworks a few years ago hurt us. The People Mover helps a great deal. The new stadiums help, of course. There are many ups and downs. But what we need the most is parking and casino vouchers. Without them, Greektown may be lost.


Cyprus Taverna is located at 579 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-961-1550.

Jeff Broder writes this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]