Back in 1968, her father, Chris Liakouras, and uncle, Bill Liakouras, founded The Parthenon, a Greektown dining staple. Today it’s Yanna Liakouras who handles the day-to-day operations: payroll, scheduling, balancing budgets, answering almost all phone calls, booking parties, planning menus and more. Yet, she makes it clear that the restaurant business chose her, not the other way around. When asked for her official title at this family-owned business, she jests, “There’s no title for [someone who does] everything!”
The Parthenon is a classic American Dream story. Chris and Bill moved to Chicago in the late ‘50s (Chris arrived first, with a mere $64 to his name) and the brothers worked in a restaurant as servers for eight years, saving enough to open their own restaurant. On July 5, 1968 – Chris’ birthday – they opened a small 80-seat version of what we now know as The Parthenon.
On their first day as entrepreneurs, they took in $110. A year later, the restaurant drew long lines of people, waiting to dine at this establishment known for its delicious, authentic and very economically priced menu. The brothers served complimentary ouzo to waiting customers and, once seated, brought over dishes to sample.
The failure rate of launching a restaurant is extremely high; learning on the job is extremely risky. But many lessons were learned in a relatively short time, including the importance of always finding a silver lining when disaster strikes. In 1969, they were robbed and the media was all over the story. “We couldn’t have afforded that kind of coverage giving us such visibility. The robbery ended up being good for business,” Chris explains. By 1971, they purchased the building next door and expanded The Parthenon to a 300-seat restaurant.
The Parthenon is said to have invented the much-loved Greek appetizer, flaming Saganaki. “A customer suggested we light the cheese on fire,” explains Yanna. Tableside, the server flambés Greek cheese, shouting an emphatic “Opa!” then douses the flame with lemon juice. While there are signature Greek items such as gyros, spanakopita, moussaka, pastitsio and dolmades on the menu, selections have evolved with diners’ ever-changing tastes. For example, there are gluten-free selections; a wide selection of vegetarian items; even a hamburger. Fish selections have also expanded over the years. A children’s menu is offered, and to highlight the Chicago Marathon there’s a Marathon salad.
Yanna joined the family business in 1995. So what does she know now that she wishes she knew 10 years ago? “Not to get into the restaurant business,” she says with a big smile. I don’t think she’s kidding. So the question arose: Has it been challenging to be a woman running a restaurant? After a quick “No, not at all,” Yanna reflects and continues: “When I first started, there were staff that weren’t used to a female boss,” she recalls. “I told a waiter to do something and he ignored me, so I sent him home.” Like that, Yanna taught an important lesson that you need to take everyone seriously, regardless of gender. She explains, “I’m really not as tough as I seem, but come across that way because I’m running a business.” She laughs, “I’m tough at work because I’m surrounded by too much testosterone.”
Self described as “funny, passionate and logical,” Yanna feels very lucky to be living the life she does, even though running a restaurant, handling events and ensuring that the highest standards are not just met but surpassed can be grueling. Yet, as she observes, “How fabulous is it to work with family every day?” Her dad works at The Parthenon and her brother, Peter, is a manager. But 20 years from now, hopefully you’ll find her retired in Grand Cayman or on an island in Greece. At least, that’s Yanna’s plan.
Wayne Cable Photograph