April 30, 2012

Grandpa has grand plans for family falafel kitchen

Christos Zoulamis moves to a new space in Westbrook that is large enough to hold his operation – and dreams.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WESTBROOK - Christos Zoulamis is a grandpa you probably don't want to arm-wrestle.

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Christos Zoulamis of Papou’s Kitchen is pleased to be in a larger space in Westbrook that will facilitate his expansion plans.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The company supplies falafel to many stores in New England, including Hannaford and Whole Foods.

Every week, the 72-year-old founder of Papou's Kitchen mixes 550 pounds of falafel by hand.

"I have a strong right arm," he said on a recent morning, while explaining the falafel-making process.

If his business expands the way he hopes it will, he's going to have to get an electric mixer soon.

Zoulamis recently moved his operation from Woodford Street in Portland to a bigger space in Westbrook that will enable him to take on more customers -- and walk to work from his new house off Bridge Street.

Behind the Westbrook Market on the corner of Stroudwater Street and William Clarke Drive, Zoulamis soaks chick peas, mixes in herbs and spices, and packages the falafel that can be found in the freezer sections of all the Hannaford supermarkets and Whole Foods stores throughout New England.

It's on the menus of local restaurants, like Silly's on Munjoy Hill, and served in the employee cafeteria at Idexx Laboratories.

For bigger orders, Zoulamis gets help from his four grown children, who technically own the business. But for the most part, from deliveries to cooking demonstrations, he does it himself.

"I'm retired," he said. "I do this for fun."

Zoulamis, known as Papou to his six grandchildren, emigrated from Greece when he was 7 years old. He grew up in Connecticut and, after college, worked at television stations in New York.

He and his wife, Niki, moved to Maine to open discount ski shops, which later closed. That's when he got into the food business.

After briefly owning the Brunswick House of Pizza, he opened The Kitchen in 1986 in an old church in the same town. The success of that restaurant led him to open The Kitchen on Congress Street in Portland.

He later sold the Brunswick restaurant, but continued to run the one in Portland until his lease was up in 2008 and the building owner wanted to take over the space.

Zoulamis decided, for his next venture, he'd ditch dining service to focus on falafel.

The zoning regulations at his new Woodford Street shop required him to do some retail business, so he sold a few lunch items while trying to build up his customer base for selling falafel wholesale.

While struggling to come up with a new name for his spinoff venture, one of his grandchildren suggested he call it Papou's, after the Greek word for "grandfather." With a drawing of Zoulamis wearing his signature bow tie, the brand was born.

His first customer was Whole Foods in Portland, which had a cafe at the time. "I checked out their falafel and it was lousy," said Zoulamis, who convinced the store to start using his instead.

Though the cafe is closed, the store still deep-fries the falafel and offers it in its salad bar.

Zoulamis' packaged products are now also sold at 16 Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts, two in Connecticut and two in Providence, R.I., as well as the Portland store, he said.

The products include baked, hamburger-sized falafel patties that can be heated up in a toaster, and chunkier patties of raw falafel that are meant to be cooked in a skillet. He recently introduced a smaller, bite-sized version of the raw falafel that he said has been popular with children. For a couple of customers, he makes a gluten-free variety using rice flour.

Silly's owner Colleen Kelley said her patrons were excited when the product was added to the menu at her restaurant, which caters to people with food allergies. It's offered in wraps and salads, and as an appetizer.

Kelley said she's been using Zoulamis' falafel for a couple of years, and now sells between 60 and 70 pounds of it per week.

"He dropped off a sample, and we met a few times, and I just fell in love with him," she said. "He's just a good-spirited, wonderful soul, and he's so proud of what he does."

Because of Zoulamis' work ethic and determination, his children weren't fazed when he decided to start a new business when he was 69 years old. Nor are they surprised that it's been so successful.

"He's a man who gets it done when it needs to get done," said his son, Dean Zoulamis.

And he isn't nearly finished yet.

The new space in Westbrook has more room for equipment, including a machine that can churn out 1,800 patties an hour, as opposed to the 300 that Zoulamis can make by hand. The location also has better access for delivery trucks, which will allow him to pursue larger grocery distributors.

"We're at a stage right now where we want to go beyond the New England area," Zoulamis said.

And he has plenty ideas for new falafel products.

"I have lots of growth planned," he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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