Lou Moshakos’s restaurant empire
by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Christopher T. Martin
On an unusually warm autumn day, Lou Moshakos is inspecting tomatoes. A shipment has just arrived at Taverna Agora, his Greek restaurant on Hillsborough Street, and he wants to make sure they’re up to par. Moshakos flips them over in his hand while chefs, waiters, and hostesses orbit in the pre-lunch frenzy. He sets the tomatoes down – they’re not good enough. He tells his kitchen crew to order a better batch before serving guests.
“Small things are so important,” Moshakos says.
They’re a big part of his success. LM Restaurants, Inc., the Raleigh-based company Moshakos founded with a Florida seafood restaurant in 1978, today boasts 35 restaurants and 2,000 employees throughout the Southeast. They include his popular Carolina Ale House chain and the Wilmington-area restaurants Bluewater Grill, Oceanic, Henry’s Restaurant and Bar, and Hops Supply Co. He also has an import business, Flying Olive Farms, which brings in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustards, wines, and Mastiqua water from Greece, which can be found in local Whole Foods, Wegmans, Southern Season, and more.
Moshakos, a Greek immigrant who moved to Raleigh in 1992, will tell you that attention to detail is responsible for his success. His peers agree.
“You can get away so quickly from keeping the main things the main things, but Lou Moshakos never forgets that,” says his friend and fellow restaurateur Steve Thanhauser, co-owner of The Angus Barn. “He’s great for our industry and our community, and he’s the real deal.”
Moshakos says hard work and family have also been vital to his success. His wife, Joy, works beside him, keeping track of the details that make his vision real. Their daughter, Amber, is the company’s vice president, their daughter Chantal works in corporate affairs, and another daughter, Crystal, works with the imports. Amber’s husband recently joined the guest relations team, and Crystal’s husband assists with construction. Three grandchildren round out the formidable group.
Nothing could make Moshakos prouder. Over a plate piled full of calamari, fresh pita, tzatziki, spicy feta spread, and hummus at Taverna Agora, the man friends call Papa Lou is at home. He mentions working and celebrating as if they’re one and the same: “In Greece, all we do is eat, drink, and party,” says the native. “We are very hospitable people … I come from a smaller village (where) everybody knows everybody.”
The village he lives in now includes his company headquarters on Chapel Hill Road and his many local restaurants in and around Raleigh. It’s a remarkable place to land after a life lived between three countries, with multiple businesses, steep learning curves, and hardships along the way. But as he settles into a chair on Taverna Agora’s upstairs patio, Moshakos says it’s all been worth it.
Elbows on the table, his blues eyes scrunch up over his salt-and-pepper mustache as he thinks, talks, and shares. A pair of silver-and-gold fountain pens stick out of his button-down’s front pocket, where the outline of his ever-present Tic Tac box is visible. “I (have done) a lot in my life,” he says thoughtfully. “I’ve not realized how much I’ve done.”
Moshakos was born in Lykovrysi, a small Greek village, to parents who were farmers. His family was “middle-poor,” he says, and as a young child his father was away fighting in the Greek civil war, for which he was awarded a medal.
Moshakos walked to school every day until sixth grade, at which point students graduated from the local school. There wasn’t enough money to send Moshakos to another village to continue his schooling, so at 13 he left school to work alongside his parents at the farm.
Several times a week, the industrious young Moshakos would load a mule and horse with the produce they’d grown and leave the village by 1 a.m., walking through the mountains to set up a market stall in another village by 4 a.m. “If you weren’t there (early), you missed the spot,” Moshakos says.
Craving adventure and better opportunities, at age 18 Moshakos moved to live with a cousin in Montreal. He’d never left home, never been on an airplane, and couldn’t speak a word of English or French. He landed Dec. 1, 1964, and “I didn’t know where the hell I was going,” he says. “I didn’t have heavy clothes … we unload, and the damn cold was so cold – I couldn’t even explain how cold it was.”
Moshakos started washing dishes in his cousins’ barbecue restaurant, making $17 a week and working 12-15 hour days, six days a week. At first, the homesickness was unbearable – he just wanted to make enough money to buy a ticket back to Greece.
“It hit me like a brick,” he says. “You don’t speak the language, total different culture – it was tough. But, you know, you get up and you say, ‘OK, tough day today, start tomorrow fresh.’ So you keep on pushing and you keep on going.”
It got better: Moshakos was promoted to working in the kitchen, then waiting tables. He began learning French (“I was hanging out with French girls,” he says with a laugh), and eventually English.
And he was still as entrepreneurial as ever. Moshakos knew folks in the commercial cleaning business and decided to open a similar company of his own. The Royal Bank of Canada lent him money for a station wagon, a vacuum cleaner, and a mop bucket.
The cleaning company Moshakos founded with that modest investment went on to become the second-largest cleaning company in Montreal, employing 465 people cleaning high-rise office buildings. “(I) worked very hard to get there … worked seven days a week,” he says. “I was out working continuously and partying all the time.”
During this time, Moshakos’s first marriage ended in divorce. But in 1975, he met his wife Joy at a Montreal nightclub, and they were married two years later. Upon returning from their Hawaiian honeymoon, Moshakos discovered his business partner had stolen everything from him. Devastated, he started another cleaning company, but it just wasn’t the same. So after 14 years in Montreal, he and Joy decided it was time to relocate. They figured it might as well be somewhere warm. Greece was out of the question, so in 1978, they landed in Boca Raton, Fla. “After we spent a day there, we said this is it. No need to go anywhere else.”
A lack of high-rises in the area, though, meant a cleaning business was out. But a call from a broker informing him that a Deerfield Beach seafood restaurant was for sale intrigued him. He checked it out, but the numbers seemed too good to be true. So he rented a car from Hertz, sat outside the restaurant, and recorded each person who went in – two lines for a couple, a short line for a kid. At the end of the day, he went inside, grabbed a menu, and multiplied the number of customers by the average meal price. The numbers seemed right, so Moshakos decided to go for it.
The Seafood Shanty opened for business under Moshakos’s ownership in 1978, with Joy in the kitchen and Moshakos up front shucking clams and oysters. In 90 days, the place was so busy people were waiting in line to get in. Moshakos credits the success to his core ethics: “It was nothing but quality, value, and service.” It’s a line he repeats often, and it’s clearly sacred scripture within the LM Restaurants community. “I still believe in that … those are the three things you have to have.”
Moshakos’s commitment to honest, excellent service is renowned among his peers. “He’s one of the few people on this earth (where) if he gives you his word, his word is as good as anything on the planet,” says Thanhauser. “If he shakes your hand on something, it will happen.”
And his business continued to grow: In 1981 the Moshakoses opened a second Seafood Shanty location, and in 1984 a third (later renamed Amber’s Seafood after their first daughter). A fine dining restaurant, Rose Garden, followed in 1987. He eventually sold them all, and the family went on a 90-day vacation to Greece. “(It was) the only time in my life I had nothing to do,” Moshakos says. “I went crazy. I really went crazy.”
Moshakos realized he had to work. So he became a partner in a string of fast-casual restaurants, Miami Subs. They all did so well that his business partner asked him to expand the chain further north. And so Moshakos did just that.
A home in Raleigh
After the family made several scouting trips throughout the Southeast for new locations, they settled on Raleigh. It just felt right. “This is a place that is so friendly,” Moshakos says. “People are really true people here.”
Moshakos takes in the open air and music drifting through the Taverna Agora patio. Sitting in his expansive Greek restaurant, life for Moshakos has come full circle. It may look idyllic, but getting here wasn’t easy.
In 1992, when he first arrived in Raleigh, Moshakos opened a Miami Subs on Western Boulevard. More soon followed. Within four years, he owned 10 Miami Subs from Raleigh to Wake Forest to Greenville. But when the company changed executive ownership, he decided it was time to develop projects of his own again. Inspiration struck at London’s Gatwick airport, on a layover to Greece.
Joy took the girls to a McDonald’s in the terminal, while Moshakos went to the Shakespeare Ale House. He sat down, had a couple beers, and by the time he met back with the girls, he knew he wanted to open a Raleigh ale house.
His first Carolina Ale House opened in 1999 in a former Creekside Drive Chinese restaurant. At first, things did not go as planned. The location wasn’t right, and people were unfamiliar with the concept of an ale house – was it a bar or a restaurant? Moshakos wasn’t deterred: He worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week to make it work. They still lost close to half a million dollars the first year. But he refused to give up. Slowly but surely, the numbers started to improve. He opened a Cary location in 2002, and one in North Raleigh in 2003. Today there are 30 Carolina Ale Houses in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas.
Moshakos is the first to say that he hasn’t done it alone. When his daughter Amber graduated from N.C. State and decided to apply to medical school, Moshakos convinced her to work for him for a year; if she hated it, he told her, she could become a doctor. She stayed, working four years with her father before heading to Cornell for a masters in hospitality. Today, she is vice president of LM Restaurants. Her father isn’t surprised. Amber was practically born in a restaurant, Moshakos points out. She used to drink virgin strawberry daiquiris in front of the live bands, and for her 5th birthday party at the restaurant, instead of a clown, Moshakos put lobsters to sleep in front of her friends.
Restaurants got to her early, but business did, too. “I am very entrepreneurial in my blood,” Amber says. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Contributing to their community and to education also runs in the family. “You’ve got to give something back, you can’t always take,” Moshakos says. The family is involved with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, the YMCA, and various local Greek festivals; Joy and Amber give out four annual scholarships to N.C. State College of Education. And at work, Moshakos ensures his employees have the educational opportunities he didn’t have. Student servers are told to prioritize class schedules over work schedules, and many of his servers have become doctors, lobbyists, and attorneys.
All this leads to a very busy schedule. When asked what Moshakos does in his spare time, he laughs. What spare time? He gets a deadpan look on his face when asked if he’ll ever retire: “When I die,” he says, “inside of a restaurant.”
The next step
With all the ups and downs of the restaurant business, why does Moshakos continue to do it? ”A lot of people ask me that,” he says. “I love what I do. I love people, I love excitement, I love to create.”
His daughter agrees. “If I had to boil it down to one word, he’s incredibly passionate,” Amber says. “He loves his work, so it’s not work. It’s just his life, and it’s our family’s life.”
That spark, grit, and gratitude got Moshakos here. He became a U.S. citizen some 20 years ago, and he’ll never forget how hard he worked for it all. When he left Greece, “He came as a new immigrant with his eyes open and saw opportunity everywhere,” says wife Joy. “He looks at everything still like that … Every day is an opportunity for him.”
Taking nothing for granted means Moshakos is able to zero in on a project with precision. When he steps into the construction space of his new Mediterranean restaurant, Vidrio, slated to open this month in Glenwood South, he’s hyper-focused. The place is modern and sophisticated – Greek wood adorns bars, 30-foot ceilings boast rope chandeliers, and Greek tiles line multiple stories – but Moshakos is fixated on what needs fixing. He feels the sides of kitchen appliances, inspecting – a counter needs to be rearranged for extra grill space; some kitchen knobs aren’t installed correctly. He speaks rapidly in Greek, making suggestions and gesticulating wildly.
Moshakos thrives on these details, and soon, there will be many more. In 2018, he’s opening two huge, multimillion-dollar restaurants in Florida. They’re both under development, but at least one will seat around 500 people and include huge outdoor patios, rooftop decks, and ocean views.
Moshakos will be so busy with them, in fact, that he’ll decamp to Florida full-time until they’re complete. That’s all right with him – he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done correctly.
And it’s just another reminder of where he’s been and what he’s accomplished. “They say life moves in circles,” he says. “I’m going back to my roots (in Florida)!” But this time, he’s returning with a business empire – one built on patience, faith, and hard work.