Andy Ziegler has thought of a master plan for getting Greek food to Madison's masses. But any successful master plan has to have a humble beginning, which is definitely the case for co-owners Ziegler and Odysseas Ladopoulos’ food venture.
The two started their gyro restaurant, Athens Gyros, in a gas station on Highway M just west of Skipper Bud's. And soon they’ll be opening the doors to a newly built restaurant across the street from where it all began.
Ziegler first met Ladopoulos in kindergarten, and they’ve been friends ever since. "The Ladopoulos family has always been a part of my life,” Ziegler says. “I frequently traveled with them to Greece in the summers when we were growing up."
Ziegler has spanned the globe from Madison to Greece to Colorado and back. After making his start in Madison's fine dining scene (you may know him from L'Etoile or the now closed Café Soleil, Nostrano, Kushi Bar Muramoto and The Haze) he took a seven-year hiatus in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There, he focused on what the Centennial State offered—mountains, sunshine, a long growing season and patios. He continued working in the fine dining community at Colorado’s Laundry, which is known for its charcuterie. Ziegler says he connected with the earth through greenhouse gardening and Seedhouse Coalition, a group of chefs and service professionals who cater events. He also created a culinary program for snow sport athletes at Steamboat Mountain School. Then he brought his diverse skill set back to Madison as part of Athens Gyros, its food truck and the newly built restaurant Athens Grill, which is tentatively set to open the second week of June.
Now the two co-owners of the Grecian food venture are about to make an even bigger mark on Madison.
Once they realized how popular their offerings were, they expanded to a food truck parked near the gas station. Soon after, they added a greenhouse structure to serve gyros year round. And the growth continues with the construction of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Athens Grill, located directly across the parking lot in which they got their start. At roughly 3,000 square feet, this multifunctional building has piqued the curiosities of passers by.
And here’s the master plan to find success in this new chapter: Their original gas station customers, many of which were truckers and commuters, can use the drive-thru for continued service; their restaurant will be casual and family friendly; and boaters and Westport bay residents will have the option to call ahead for a pick-up order. Late night food after 9 p.m. will only add to the options in this area, Ziegler says.
A recent walkthrough of the developing space proved promising for the owners’ anticipated second week of June opening. It will house an outdoor drive-thru service window, a walk-in restaurant with seating and an L-shaped bar. A large retractable garage door will open up the indoor dining space to some fresh air that will sprawl out onto an outdoor patio with umbrella-covered tables. Ouzo and gyros in the sunshine, anyone?
Athens Grill will continue to uphold Ziegler's motto of “real food prepared by hand using fresh ingredients that everyone can afford.”
Their Athens food truck, emblazoned with the phrase "Godly gyros on the go," will mobilize once the restaurant opens. Already filling its schedule with catering and wedding events, the truck will otherwise focus on pop-up dining. Like most cities, Madison's food truck business is booming. While they opted out of vending at the Breese Stevens Field Bodega and the school venture Let's Eat Out this year (due to an already busy schedule with their restaurant expansion), 2018 might be a different story, Ziegler says. The currently affixed greenhouse will be transported to Ziegler's parent's family farm just outside of town. There it will grow spring mix and other custom toppings for future gyro concoctions.
Pedro, aka the Gyro Master, according to Ziegler, is known for his culinary expertise and is the backbone of the food truck. You can find him shaving the spicy lamb meat at just the right rotation or developing the well-known Friday taco specials including steak, al pastor style.Be prepared for a line out the door or call in your pick-up order in advance. Front of house manager Sara Vestlie is the organization guru. According to Ziegler, Athens also sells a surprisingly large quantity of vegetarian offerings, including Greek salads and the grilled eggplant gyro.
Back inside the new restaurant, a central L-shaped bar will allow for a more casual crowd to simmer longer and park a seat. Well seasoned in Madison's bar scene, Chad Vogel, owner of The Robin Room, will lend his expertise to Athen's bar menu. They will have Ouzo, the classic anise liquor that clouds in a milky louche with the addition of water (super magical Ouzo Effect!). Another staple will be a liquor lesser known to Madison—Metaxa, an aged Grecian spirit similar to brandy. Multiple tap beers will also be available; The list is still in the works.
The lower level of the restaurant acts as a large USDA certified meat-processing facility. This squeaky clean space will allow Athens’ team to continue hand molding and shipping gyro cones at about 1,000 pounds per week. Athens’ market for distribution is mainly Wisconsin and areas of eastern Iowa. Chicago used to hold a bit of a Midwestern monopoly on the gyro cone market, Ziegler sasy. Athens found a way to keep this business in Madison's backyard with their own establishment. “As far as we know, this is the only all-natural gyro product being widely distributed,” Ziegler says. The proprietary mixture of lamb and beef has added spices, he says. "I can tell you, our oregano comes straight from Greece,” he says.
Ahead of the grand opening of Athens Grill, an Athens pop-up event is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. June 6 at The Robin Room. Gyros, Greek bar snacks, frozen yogurt sampling and giveaways are included. And look forward to the brick-and-mortar restaurant tentatively set to open next month. Opa!