Everybody Loves Stathis: Meet the Owner of Stathis Greek Gyros & Grill

The owner of bygone Greek Village Gyros, once a Campus staple, reminisces as retirement nears.

Joy Frank-Collins
Stathis Panagiotopoulos carries his menu sign to the front of The Ohio Taproom.

When Stathis Panagiotopoulos backs his school-bus-turned-food-truck into the parking lot of The Ohio Taproom at 5 p.m. most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, connects the propane tank and fires up his grill, he knows a fair number of his customers will show up to enjoy a heaping helping of nostalgia along with their gyros, feta fries and baklava.

The amiable Greek, who insists everyone call him “Steve” (the Americanized version of his name), has been serving fare from his homeland since 1970, when he opened his first restaurant at 1606 N. High St., across from the Ohio State campus.

And while his claim that he was the “first guy to bring the gyro business to Columbus 51 years ago” is difficult to substantiate, one thing is certain: Those wishing to relive their glory (or not-so-glorious) days with one of his famous gyros shouldn’t dawdle. After one final season on the food truck circuit, he’s hanging up his bright blue apron and returning to his native Oreoi, Greece, to enjoy the acres of grapevines and olive trees that surround his home there.

A gyro from Stathis Greek Gyros & Grill

This will be the second time the 76-year-old has retired and headed back home to Greece from Columbus. And this time, he hopes it will stick.

Before switching to food service, Panagiotopoulos was a farmer in Greece and originally immigrated to Columbus in 1969 with his wife, Roula, their 18-month-old daughter and his brother. He operated his Campus gyros and doughnuts shop, Greek Village Gyros, 24 hours a day, capitalizing on the whims of college students going out to party or heading home after painting the town. From 1970 to 1982, a fresh Greek Village gyro would set a student back 99 cents, and many fondly remember hiding a dollar bill in a back pocket so they could buy one after hitting the bars.

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His most epic night, he recalls, was a Friday before an OSU-Michigan football home game. He made 3,700 gyros. “And I’m not talking about drinks and fries and cheese sticks. I’m talking only gyros. 3,700! It was a crazy weekend,” he says.

Joe Bechtel attended Ohio State from 1979 to 1983 and calls Panagiotopoulos’ gyros his “primary dining plan” as a student. He and his three roommates, who once consumed 27 gyros in one weekend, were fixtures in the line that stretched up the stairs to the unassuming shop where “you’d see this bald guy in there just cutting up his gyro meat,” Bechtel says.

The shop existed on South Campus until 2001, when Campus Partners began redeveloping the area and bought out Panagiotopoulos to make way for the Gateway Project. He and his wife relocated to a storefront on West Broad Street until 2007, when they retired and returned home to Greece.

Columbus was never far from his mind, though.

Stathis Panagiotopoulos of Stathis Greek Gyros & Grill

He returned at least once a year to visit his eldest and youngest daughters, who live in the area with their husbands and children, and also to get medical checkups for his middle daughter Vassiliki (“Vicki”) whose health problems required her to continue living with Stathis and Roula. Then in 2017, she suffered a stroke. The couple knew Columbus, with its abundance of medical facilities, offered her the best chance at recovery.

“For those 10 years, I enjoyed it so much,” he says about his brief retirement back in Greece. “And then, all of a sudden this happened with my daughter. And she comes first; she always comes first.”

After returning to Central Ohio, he was inspired to start a food truck to “make a little pocket money” but, more importantly, to get out of the house. “Because the house can kill you,” he says, sharing that he’d fallen into a pattern of “sitting home, drinking and getting fat.”

He bought a small school bus, gutted it and retrofitted it with kitchen equipment. Stathis Greek Gyros & Grill was born.

No one was happier to see it parked in the lot at The Ohio Taproom than Bechtel.

The Grandview resident concedes that he’s changed a lot from his days playing college hockey nearly 40 years ago and that Panagiotopoulos probably “couldn’t pick me out of a lineup,” but for him, the recognition was immediate. “Man, when I saw him, I really, instantly, thought it had to be him. It was crazy.”

Bechtel even texted a photo to a group of college friends, who were equally excited to know that “Steve, the Gyro Man” was still feeding folks in the community.

“It makes my heart feel so good when I see people and they remember me from the old days,” Panagiotopoulos says, placing his hand over his heart and smiling broadly.

But all good things must come to an end. Again.

Stathis Panagiotopoulos of Stathis Greek Gyros & Grill

With Vicki’s rehabilitation wrapping up, Panagiotopoulos says it’s the right time to head home. He plans to put the food truck on the market later in the year, estimating that it can bring in $600 for three hours of service on a good night. To sweeten the deal, he’s offering potential buyers the opportunity to work alongside him for a few weeks to learn his recipes and the other secrets behind operating a successful food truck.

“I’m telling you, if a young person buys this business and works, they’ll make good money,” he says.

John Evans, owner of The Ohio Taproom, says it’s easy to see why Panagiotopoulos has been successful in the food business for all these years.

“It’s good food at a reasonable cost,” he says. “And he’s such a pleasant guy to deal with—he makes everyone feel good when they step up to the window.”

So why go all the way back to Greece when so much of his life has been built here in Columbus?

“I have a house there, I’ve got relatives. I’ve got people, a lot of people there, too,” Panagiotopoulos says. “I’m an old man, and people always want to go back home when they retire.”

Will he think back fondly on his days of slinging gyros for thousands of young college students while he’s sipping on his homemade moonshine in Oreoi?

“I’ll miss, not the work, but the people,” he says. “Because everywhere I go here, I’m telling you, they love me. Everybody loves me!”

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.