Before It Was Cool: Souvla

Before It Was Cool: Souvla

Walk into Souvla’s hip, flagship Hayes Valley location, and you’d never guess the restaurant was born of a pile of leftovers.

The popular Greek spot opened in 2014, added a second location on Divisadero this year, and will open doors on Valencia early next. Turn the clock back a few years, though, and the restaurant’s concept was just a random idea that popped into Charles Bililies’ head the day after he roasted a full lamb in his backyard and invited a bunch of people over to enjoy it.

It’s 2010, and Charles is living in the Inner Richmond, which means he has his hands on a rare, elusive San Francisco backyard. So, Charles and his roommate decide to start throwing “roast parties.” He buys a charcoal spit and, since he’s been working in the restaurant biz for years, orders a whole animal to cook. The backyard roast parties only have three rules: “Bring something to eat, something to drink, and somebody we don’t know.”

In a nod to his Greek heritage, Charles decides to roast a lamb for the first party. As he tells it: “We had this big blowout party and the next day I was cleaning up. We had a bunch of leftover lamb, someone had brought this beautiful heirloom tomato salad, and there was some pita bread and some feta cheese. So I made this leftover sandwich. It was one of those weird sort of perfect storms—truly one of those a-ha moments. I was like: man, this is delicious. Why can’t I find this anywhere?”

“I had always loved the basic concept or architecture of a gyro or souvlaki sandwich: warm fluffy pita, cool yogurt, meat, all that stuff, but everything that had existed, certainly in the U.S. was of this highly processed, mystery-meat varietal," he added. "And even though at that point the burger and the hot dog and the taco had been given the chef treatment, nobody had done it to the gyro or the souvlaki sandwich.”

That started getting the wheels turning, but it wasn’t until late the following year that Charles really dove in. He resigned from his full-time restaurant job, headed to Greece for inspiration, then came back and was really ready to roll in early 2012. He began pitching investors and hunting for a location—a process that was hardly a walk in the park.

“The whole process is kind of stacked against you,” Charles said. “It’s a classic cart-and-horse situation. If you don’t have the money, you can’t get a space. But you also can’t raise the money unless you tell people where it’s going to be. Throughout the whole fundraising process, the yardstick kept moving. And it was even more challenging because the concept was unproven and I was unproven.”

Eventually, Charles found the location that would become Souvla's flagship and, after a full remodel, opened to the public in the spring of 2014. “We weren’t fully funded until the day after we opened the door,” he said.” It was a pretty scary process and a pretty scrappy project.”

“Opening day was one of the those weird moments where it was like: Huh. So I’m gonna open this up and people are gonna come in and give me money for this thing I’ve been talking about incessantly for the past four years?” he added. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Souvla sold out by lunchtime on opening day (although salads have since become its bestseller).

That makes it little surprise that Souvla continues to grow. When the third location opens early next year, Souvla will have over 100 employees—more than ten times its original count. And it all started with a pile of a leftovers.

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photo by Kassie Borreson