When JoBeth Graves began teaching herself to make Greek cuisine, she had no idea it would lead to opening her own restaurant. The former St. Jude nurse practitioner began selling her homemade Greek dishes at local farmers’ markets across the city, selling out to eager customers every weekend. After gaining recognition and a loyal clientele, JoBeth eventually decided to open her own restaurant in 2018. Grecian Gourmet Taverna quickly became a neighborhood favorite in the South Main Arts District. The rave reviews have expanded her clientele, attracting customers from across the city and tourists who’d heard about the family-owned gem.
JoBeth has managed to scale her business in less than three years to focus on serving customers at the brick-and-mortar location, while also offering catering services and producing retail items for grocery stores across the city. The restaurateur spoke with us about where her love for Greek food originated and what’s next for the Grecian Gourmet brand.
What led you to open a Greek restaurant?
My ex-husband was Greek, so I learned how to make Greek food when we were married. I began making food for family, friends and people in the neighborhood. Later down the line, I began selling at farmers’ markets, and we would do three markets every Saturday. We were also working out of a commercial kitchen that we could rent but got to the point that we maxed out the number of hours we could do business there. We then decided to open a restaurant to be able to serve but that would also allow us to continue doing farmers’ markets and retail.
You were a longtime nurse. Did you ever think you would become a restaurant owner?
I always wanted to own a restaurant. [The] home I had in Midtown had a huge kitchen, and I would always make food for the neighborhood. I looked into opening a restaurant years ago, but it wasn’t the right time. I set that idea aside and just continued working as a nurse practitioner at St. Jude, but I always continued cooking and making things for family and friends.
What made you decide it was the right time to open Grecian Gourmet?
It became popular. We realized this was something people really wanted in the city. There was no place to get authentic Greek cuisine. Also, my daughter was a teacher at the time, but I wanted to build something on her Greek heritage. As I mentioned, her father — my first husband — was Greek. And this really all grew out of the love of the culture. And really, it was a love of mine. I always thought if the food is good, the people will come.
How would you describe the Grecian Gourmet experience?
Before COVID, when we would have a full restaurant, it was fantastic. It would smell like my own house. Guests have said it feels like they’ve come [into] my home and they’re sitting down and enjoying good food. It’s a very comfortable space. We get to know all of our customers and sometimes sit down and talk to them. We’ve met people from all over the world. I wanted Grecian Gourmet to feel like you’re coming into our home and enjoying good food.
What do you love most about being a restaurant owner?
Definitely the people and seeing people enjoy the food. I love when people say this is truly authentic and much better than what they expected when they taste our food. I’m glad we are getting the flavors right, and we’re doing it traditionally and people can sit down and really enjoy the experience.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
We had already [begun] working on an online ordering system, so we were very fortunate to have that in place. Once COVID happened, we just expanded that. You could order a meal that was hot and ready to go, or you could order a grab-and-go meal online and pick it up, and then we [have] frozen meals that are fully assembled … We made it easy for people to order or get our food.
There was a time we were so busy in the beginning — because I think we were one of the only restaurants around that was able to make the switch so quickly. And we also have the retail side, where we were sending chips and dips to grocery stores like Superlo and Ms. Cordelia’s Market.
And we make the experience very personal. If someone calls our restaurant, we know who they are. We have regulars who we know about their families and their challenges in life. And we continue to build these relationships with them [despite] COVID. That is what’s saving us right now.
You’re located on South Main, the city’s arts district. What do you love most about the area?
My husband and I live one block away from where we work. Once we opened the restaurant, we decided we wanted to be close and move into the community. I really love South Main. It’s the people; it’s very eclectic. There are great shops, and people are out on foot so you recognize faces. To be in a big city, South Main is like its own little community.
What are some lessons you’ve learned since becoming a restaurant owner?
It’s constant, and it never stops. When I was working at St. Jude, I could walk away from my desk at 5 o’clock and didn’t have to think about it until I went back to work, but this is something [that] never stops. You’re always thinking of how you can get better.
Also, I’ve learned that reviews are important. Ninety-nine percent of our reviews are fantastic, and that makes my heart happy, but if there is one bad review, I want to learn from that. We will pick up the phone and call the customer and find out what happened and how we can make it better. You always have to think about your customer, and it never stops.
What’s next for Grecian Gourmet?
Our biggest hurdle the last few months was completing our Tennessee Department of Agriculture Certification. And we’ve completed that. [We] also started doing Greek cooking classes prior to COVID, so now we are considering Zoom online classes. We’ve also partnered with distributors to do a four-course wine tasting/pairing, so we’re excited about that.
“My husband is such a great businessman and is a thinker and very good at driving business. I’m more creative. And then bringing my daughter in, who’s much younger. She sees things we don’t see from her age group. We really work together as a team.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t take shortcuts. They don’t get you anywhere. And another one is always be authentic.
Name three light-hearted things you can’t live without.
Friends, travel, and education. We should be learning something new every day!
Thank you, JoBeth! Grecian Gourmet Taverna is located at 412 S. Main St., Memphis, TN 38103. Learn more at thegreciangourmet.com.
All photography provided.