By GRAIG GRAZIOSI
George Coutris was 33, with two children and a job working with the state auditor’s office, when he and his wife, Jamie, decided to take a risk and open a restaurant.
“I was terrified,” he said, recalling the decision to open their first restaurant – The Grecian Gourmet in the Southern Park Mall – nearly 40 years ago.
Today, the couple is spending the first days of retirement helping another couple in their 30s get a start in the Youngstown restaurant scene.
The Capitol Grill, located in the food court of 20 Federal Place in downtown Youngstown, was opened by the Coutrises in 2007 in the space formerly occupied by Jay’s Hot Dogs. The couple had sold the Grecian Gourmet – which had since moved locations from the mall to U.S. Route 224 in Boardman – and hoped their new venture’s lunchtime-only hours would allow them to take more time for themselves.
They wanted to capture the downtown lunch crowd – a mixture of primarily government employees, attorneys, bankers and call-center workers – and do so using fresh salads and soups.
“If I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t serve it,” Jamie Coutris said. “So we worked hard to keep our ingredients fresh and provide our customers with quality food.”
Now reaching their 70s, George and Jamie are ready to retire and spend some time traveling to visit their three adult children and extended family. But not before they pass the Grill on to a new generation of restaurateurs.
When Ibrahim Jaafar, the owner of Eman’s Lebanese Cuisine next to the Capitol Grill, learned that his longtime neighbors were looking to sell their place, he thought of his nephew, Hachem, who was already running a bar in Hermitage, Pa., called Jai Alai with his wife, Batoul.
George and Jamie had a few disappointing meetings with prospective buyers, but knew they’d found worthwhile heirs to their business legacy in the Jaafar family.
“We had some people come through who wanted to gut the space and not use our equipment or our recipes,” George said. “We didn’t really want that. We wanted someone who was interested in continuing what we started, and the kids have been great in that way. Plus they’re basically starting off just like we were at their age.”
Once the sale was complete, Hachem and Batoul began working alongside George and Jamie to learn how to run the restaurant and familiarize themselves with the recipes that the downtown clientele had become accustomed to over the Grill’s 11-year history.
“We wanted to keep everything the same,” Batoul Jaafar said. “George and Jamie have been great to work with and have taught us all the recipes.”
For George and Jamie, the time they’re spending with the new owners is not unlike their own experience opening their first restaurant.
George grew up working in his father’s bar and restaurant – the “Capitol Bar,” located in the same spot where the WRTA sits today on Mahoning Avenue – peeling potatoes and hand cutting french fries and chips. Jamie was an excellent cook and baker, and was already selling Greek pastries from her home when the couple decided to take a chance at running their own place.
George learned how to run a restaurant and developed his appreciation for hand-made dishes at his father’s bar, and Jamie did the actual cooking and developed new recipes to attract more customers. They chose the name “Capitol Grill” for their second restaurant as a way of acknowledging the bar where George first learned the business.
When it came time for him and Jamie to open the Grecian Gourmet, George’s father joined his son and daughter-in-law in an advisory role.
“He helped us a lot,” Jamie said. “He’d help cook and prep, and he always had critiques of the menu items, but it was a big help getting started.”
George and Jamie will stay on with the Hachem and Batoul through the beginning of June before stepping away and beginning their retirement in full.
“I really grew to love it,” Jamie said. “You get to know the faces, and they become your regulars. We worked hard, and I think we did good for our customers.”