“It is the sixth season. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”Fotis Karageorgiou meets us on the shaded terrace of The Barrel in Nydri harbour. The village of 800 people on Lefkas Island, off the West coast of Greece, would not strike you as the perfect place to start a restaurant in a looming financial crisis. Yet this man has pulled it off: what started as a family adventure has grown into a vibrant business with all the venue’s 40 tables packed every night, even when the rest of the harbour is empty. It is the beginning of summer, and above us, works are under way to expand the restaurant further with a rooftop terrace offering a spectacular view of the port and the adjacent islands.
How did he do it? Here is the scoop.“It was a very impulsive decision, really. We were both established in Athens. But we were thinking of starting a family, and that would have been complicated with both of us working. We were worried about the financial crisis, of course. Friends warned us against it. But we decided to take the risk.”
Abandoning well-paid F&B jobs in the capital, Fotis and his wife Alexandra moved all the way across the country to the Ionian. With a business partner, they started their first tavern in Nydri harbour, and got to work.
Chapter One: Have a Passion
“You have to love what you do. I love working with people, and even if I hadn’t ended up in the restaurant business, my job was always going to be about communicating with people, understanding them, and learning from them. There are many places out there that serve good food – you need an extra personal touch to stand out.”
During that first season, Lefkas experienced extensive wildfires, an earthquake, and weeks of strikes. But despite all the setbacks, the business took off. Trained in the top restaurants in Athens, Fotis had an eye for what the customers were looking for: an anchor, a story, and a friend. It is uncanny how after six years, he still remembers our first order. Or who has food allergies. Or your favourite fish (which, given sufficient notice, he can order and source even if it’s not on the menu).
His outgoing and personable nature, and his newly discovered talent for building lasting friendships despite any language, age, or cultural barriers have become the key to the success of the operation. But it wasn’t until the young family took over The Barrel, a struggling yet quirky, non-traditional place popular with mature Scandinavian tourists, that the business exploded.
Chapter Two: Have a Vision
“I found out that The Barrel was up for sale, and I just knew I had to take the chance. In fact, given another chance, I would certainly do it again. Finally, I could run my own kitchen, and have enough professional staff. You know, when you do something, you have to give it all your heart. But you also have to give it 100% of your effort. You cannot start a new business venture half-assed and see how it goes. You need to have enough variety on the menu. You have to have enough staff serving tables. You need to have order in your operations, from day one. If you fold a napkin, fold it properly. If you place a fork on the table, make sure it’s straight – it’s the little details that matter. I learned everything I know about service from my mentors in Athens – they are wonderful people, and I am grateful to have worked with them. At the Barrel, I could use that knowledge.”
The first year was all about decisions, making fixes, and polishing their operations. Fotis concedes that translating five star service to an island environment did not come easy. Adjustments had to be made, and procedures simplified, but what did not change was the approach: warmth and hospitality only work if supported by professionalism. One of the first challenges of the young business was communicating these changes.
“The old Barrel had a reputation, and an established clientele. It also had its problems. At first, I was tempted to change the name, to let the people know it’s a completely new place. But we were making a lot of changes and investments that first season, and changing the interior decorations would have been too much. And so it remained. But everything else had to go.”
The overhaul included the challenge of hiring a new staff of 20 people. But word of the new owner and his work ethic spread quickly through the small town, and people came knocking. Many have worked there every season since.
Chapter Three: Have Friends
Surprisingly, the same happened with clients. Lefkas is an addictive place, where people, usually sailors, come back year after year (including the author, who has been coming here at least once a year since 2005). And Fotis and his family have built such strong friendships in their first year people came into the harbour asking for them by name! That might also be the reason they have become the social media superstars of the island.
“It happened quite organically, we had no social media strategy or any specific goals, and we definitely never asked our guests for online reviews. The Barrel did have some presence on Tripadvisor before I took over, and then people that I already knew came in, they told their friends about us, we talked, and they would just write a review. It’s good for attracting new customers, but to me, Facebook is more important. I soon realised The Barrel does not have a face – and people need a face to relate to. All our regular customers are my personal friends on Facebook. They enjoy staying in touch during the winter months and seeing updates and videos about our family life. It’s very personal, very authentic. I love being friends with people from different countries. They only downside is I can’t take my family on a holiday to some places – there are just too many friends there! If we meet everyone, we won’t have any time for the actual holiday, and if we miss someone, they’ll get upset. We’d have to organise a big party to get them all in one place, I guess.”
Finale: Happily Ever After?
Jokes aside, Fotis is very aware of the fact that the restaurant is dependent on his personality and the close relationships he has built with his clients. After six seasons, he no longer has to stand in the street to invite people in. They come to say hi – but they only stay if he is around.
“I couldn’t go and open another Barrel on the other side of the island. I know I am the main attraction, and I know it couldn’t work. Instead, now that I have a deep understanding of what customers want, I am using it to improve and grow the original place. I love spending the summer here. It’s hard work, but we get to travel and rest in the winter, and it’s also much better for raising kids than the city. I would not trade it for anything else.”