Bruce Johansen: It’s September 20, 2013. I’m Bruce Johansen and I’m at Best Steak House, located at 860 University Avenue West in St. Paul. This is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along the Central Corridor. My project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant. [Audio at bottom]
To learn more, read Best Steak House: “When they told me business would go up…I couldn’t figure out how, but it really has,” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed. The very first question is to pronounce your last name.
Mike Hatzistamoulos: Hatzistamoulos.
B: Thank you. I want to start at the very beginning. Where were you and your brother born and where did you grow up?
M: We were born on the island in Greece named Samos. We came here I was eleven years old and my brother was one. But actually I consider myself as a St. Paul boy.
B: I’m guessing that where you were born, your birthplace, is very different from St. Paul?
M: Much different, much different. Big difference.
B: What was it like?
M: Well I was young but back then it was nice, quiet, easy-going, nothing like the Cities, I can tell you that. The island is only like about 20,000 people, so we used to go swim every day, fishing, play soccer all day. Over here we do different things. Internet.
B: It sounds beautiful. What brought you and your family here?
M: My mother, my father, well, actually my mother, got a sister, two sisters here, and then her mom and dad, my grandpa. We came over here for the big dream, to make lots of money.
B: Which you have, right?
M: I don’t know about that, but we live very well.
B: So Minnesota and St. Paul were your destinations?
M: Minnesota, St. Paul, we’ve been here for the last forty years. This is my home.
B: And what did your parents do when they were in Greece?
M: They were farmers. My dad used to buy and sell fruits. And plant vegetables and this and that. Nothing really big. Just make a good living, easy life.
B: But food related?
M: Well, of course.
B: Have you done other kinds of work, or is this your life’s work?
M: This is what I’ve been doing for the last 27 years. Well actually for the last 40 years, because my father opened up a steakhouse at West 7th Street, and I was washing dishes when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 14, I was cooking. So that’s all I’ve been doing.
B: And then this spot opened in 1985?
M: ’88, yes. We opened it up 27 years ago.
B: Did both operate simultaneously? Or did your father close his other shop?
M: No, no, my father retired a long time ago, you know. So, he helped us over here a little bit, yes he did.
B: So the one on West 7th, what was its history?
M: That was there for 10 years. In Sibley Plaza. It was a very nice place. Busy place. That’s how my father retired.
B: I remember at one point there were a lot of Best Steak Houses around. How many were there?
M: There were about 15 of them at one point. Most of the people that had it, they retire, the kids didn’t want to take over… and then they got sold off and went out of business. But I’m still here.
B: Were they franchised or how did that work?
M: Yes, at one point it was.
B: How was this particular location chosen?
M: This particular location. We were just driving down University, my father was actually driving down University, and he saw the building for sale. And the neighborhood. This was actually a very decent neighborhood, you know. It was nothing, there was nothing like this type of restaurant here. So we figured let’s buy the building and try opening up a steakhouse. That was the best thing we’ve ever done in our lives.
B: Was there a restaurant in here previously?
M: No it wasn’t, no it wasn’t, it was just an empty building. There was nothing in here. Something was supposed to open up, an ice cream shop, and they never made it. They never opened it up, so. That was the best thing. Very lucky people.
B: What do you remember about University Avenue back in the ‘80s?
M: If you’ve got about five hours I can tell you that. When we first opened up there was nothing but dope dealers, prostitutes out there. All kinds of people, bad people. But we never had no problem. We treat people like human beings. But now there’s nothing out there like that. It’s getting much better, I think.
B: Has that been a gradual change or was there something that was the turning point?
M: It’s just happened in the last couple years, with the light rail, you know. The cops have started pushing everybody out of here. You don’t see nothing out there no more. Nice and clean out there. Nice and clean, why.
B: Do you live in the neighborhood?
M: I don’t live too far from here. I live about eight miles from here. So I’m very close to the neighborhood. I did grow up in the neighborhood. I grew up on Sherburne and Marion.
B: So down by the Capitol and Sears?
M: Yeah. Yes, yes.
B: Other significant changes in terms of the businesses on the Avenue. What have you seen over the years?
M: You know what, to tell the truth, the last year, since the construction’s been done, my business has been up like about 15, 20 percent.
M: When they told me business would go up, I don’t know, I couldn’t figure out how, but it really has.
B: Even before the trains start running?
M: Maybe the economy’s getting better, too. But like I said, since the light rail, it’s been up about 15, 20 percent.
B: Are you optimistic that once the trains are running it will go up even more?
M: Once the trains are running I’m going to be full, yes I am.
B: You’ll have to expand.
M: Well, yeah. I’m going to try do that.
B: Your family owns this building.
M: This building, yes, right.
B: And what about the adjoining storefronts, are those different ownership?
M: Which ones?
B: Your next door neighbors.
M: Yeah, they’re different owners. There’s nice Oriental people that cut hair over there. There’s a Mexican guy, nice restaurant over there.
B: How many people are employed here?
B: And how many of those are family members?
B: Who are the others?
M: Me and my brother, my mother, my daughter, my nephews, my wife. You know, everybody’s here.
B: And they all have different roles or do they all wear lots of hats?
M: We all do whatever needs to be done. Nobody’s got a role. If we need to clean the bathrooms, we clean the bathrooms. They don’t say, hey, that’s not my job, that’s your job. We do what needs to be done.
B: Where did you learn to cook?
M: I learned to cook from my father. Like I said, about 35 years ago. He was a very good cook. He had a steakhouse, you know.
B: Did he learn from his parents?
M: No. He learned over here. Self-taught, yeah. My father’s a very smart man. He can do a lot of things.
B: Is he still around?
M: Unfortunately, we lost my father about nine months ago.
B: I’m sorry.
M: That wasn’t very nice, you know. It wasn’t nice. I miss him a lot.
B: What sets this restaurant apart from all of the others on University Avenue? There are so many.
M: This is the restaurant where the prices are reasonable, actually the prices are really cheap, our food is great, service, we’re super friendly. Family, we treat you like you’re family when you walk in here. We don’t treat you like a stranger. By the time you walk out of here, you are a friend and a family.
B: Are there other steakhouses along here?
M: No, no, no. See, the thing is, I cannot be in one place, I can’t be in two places at once, so there’s no way.
B: I meant in terms of competition.
M: There’s no competition, there’s no competition. Nothing, nothing. Nothing as good as me. Whoever’s going to come my way is going to go.
B: Where do your customers come from?
M: My customers come from everywhere. Mostly from the neighborhood. I have people, last night I had a couple, they came from Owatonna, for their anniversary. I felt really good about it, you know, because they found out about me down there. They loved it. I took care of them very well. I have customers who come from everywhere. But 70 percent from five miles around.
B: And lots from the immediate neighborhood?
M: Oh yeah, a lot of them, a lot of them.
B: In addition to the sit-down restaurant do you also cater and…?
M: We do a lot of takeout. A lot of takeout. We don’t cater because it’s too much work you know. But if you call in orders to go we’ll do it for you.
B: What have been the biggest challenges for you?
M: During the construction for a couple of months it was kind of slow. But it wasn’t nothing really that bad. You know me, I worry a lot. But like I said, as soon as the construction was over it popped right back up. It was better than before.
B: I remember how the street was.
M: Oh, yeah. I’ve got a lot of pictures. I’ve got a lot of pictures of that. I show you the pictures, you’ll go, “Wow.” Digging holes there, digging holes over there. Everything was closed you know. The sidewalk had fences up. Every day I came down here it was something different.
B: Any other thoughts about how the light rail will impact your business once it’s up and running?
M: Any other thoughts? I just think it’s going to be for the best of us. I hope it’s for the best of us. I don’t know how to look at it because they haven’t started coming up University Avenue.
B: I connected with you through Isabel Chanslor at NDC.
M: Isabel, Isabel helps us a lot. During the construction she has signs up. It says Best Steak House this way, Best Steak House that way, you know. She really bent over backwards for us. I really appreciate what she did for us. She’s an amazing woman, an amazing woman, you know. She did all kinds of things for us. A $20,000 grant, we did the façade here. She helped us a lot. Great woman, great woman. I love that woman. She’s just like my sister, you know. We talk to each other two or three times a week. We’re very good friends, very good friends. She brings her family here, herself and her kids.
B: When Isabel first introduced me to some of the business owners, I don’t think you were in. Steve was in, your mother was in. It was probably June, early June, so I heard that you were going to be closing in July.
M: Yes, yes, we were closed in July. I went back home for a month. At the same time that I was in vacation, we remodeled in here, too.
B: I was going to say, it look really nice.
M: It does look nice, doesn’t it?
B: What all did you do in terms of renovation?
M: Well, we did all the walls, the floors, the lights. It looks beautiful.
B: It’s brighter, isn’t it?
M: It’s much brighter. It was red brick before. Now it’s white brick and blue. The Greek colors.
B: Any other changes coming up?
M: Next year, we’ll put new windows outside. On the second level.
B: What’s up on the second level?
M: We have apartments. For how long, I don’t know. We might tear it down and open up a coffee shop later on, down the road.
B: I just want to thank you. You are really busy. Is it always like this?
M: Every day.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.