After nearly 30 years of ups and downs on Main Street, Zesty’s is here to stay. By Noel Bartocci Photography by JPG Photo & Video (jpgphotography.com)
There are two things you need to know when you sit down to have a conversation with Athanasios Konidaris, owner and chef of gourmet Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean food at Zesty’s restaurant. First, he goes by the name “Tom.”
“I said call me, ‘Tom’ a long time ago and it kind of stuck,” he explained. “I said it to make it easier for my customers – I don’t know if that was good or bad.”
He ended the anecdote with a very aware laugh — the kind of knowing chuckle which originates from the perspective of experience, which brings me to the second thing. The conversation you have with him will not be linear.
Tom’s enterprising spirit led him into the food service industry, opening up a pizza shop in North Philadelphia, over four decades ago. He was partially motivated at the time by the desire to offer help and a product to people directly, as opposed to his time as a contractor where too often he would work diligently only to be shorted or cheated in labor costs. He explained this new freedom and opportunity as a restaurant owner.
“No matter what it is — a pizza shop, a sandwich shop — if I see a person who needs food, I will give it to them. I will open up my door,” Tom said. “The situation I was in before, they would take from me and I don’t want that [for anyone else.]”
Tom’s pizza shop spawned two more locations and by 1976, he would tap into his familial roots and open a small Greek spot at 17th and Ludlow – one of the first of its kind in Philadelphia.
“We had trouble with the health department, they had not seen this before,” he said referencing an upright gyro rotisserie. “This wasn’t New York where they had these kinds of restaurants already. They didn’t have the rules here yet.”
In true fashion, he persevered through the intricacies and opened up the small shop, eventually outgrowing that spot and re-opening to a larger location on Sansom Street.
“Back in the 90’s, when [Zesty’s] first started, Manayunk was the place to be,” Tom explained when I asked what finally brought him to the neighborhood. At the time, this area was known for offering unique experiences for both businesses and consumers. Tom thought, what better place to introduce a menu that featured his fresh and inspired blend of Italian, Greek, and Mediterranean cuisines? So began the first iteration of Zesty’s, 27 years ago.
“On any given day, we’d serve 200 dinners — weekends as much as 350 — and it was lots of families,” he said. “It was a good run up to 2005-2006 and then it started declining,” referring to the lead up to the 2008 economic crisis. “[All restaurants] had valets and used to do 40-50 cars each. Then, after the crash, many went down. A lot of good restaurants downgraded or left. A lot of bars, and the crowds changed. More drinks and less family dinners.”
Tom disregarded his reluctance to change along with the community and remodeled Zesty’s to be more bar-patron friendly, removing multiple tables from the space and installing a large, circular bar right in the restaurant’s center.
“I was convinced, so to speak, that I should do more business in liquor,” he remembered. “You know what? It was the wrong thing for me to do. I could not compete with dollar beer up the street. [Zesty’s] wasn’t me anymore.”
He found himself making a decision that was farther away from his original vision for the restaurant – to serve quality crafted dishes that fused the finest food from multiple regions. It was a pivot he owned and from which he ultimately learned. So began the slow progress necessary to restore Zesty’s into the celebrated restaurant it is today.