Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Inspiring Leader, True Hellene
CHRIS P. TOMARAS
November 9, 1937 to October 14, 2015
Chris P. Tomaras—whose spectacular rise from Greek immigrant to successful U.S. businessman and dedicated philanthropist epitomized the American Dream—died on Thursday, October 14, in Chicago, IL. By his side were his dear friends Elaine, Tom and John Sotos. He was 77.
Chris Tomaras’ early life in Greece and America was full of challenges. Yet his ingenuity, tenacity and resourcefulness enabled him to overcome the obstacles and lead a full and productive life.
One of three children born to Pavlos and Evdokia Tomaras in Piraeus, Greece, young Chris came into a world torn by civil war. Mr. Tomaras’ father, who his son described as “a simple but wise man,” was a political activist whose retaliation against the brutality of the opposition resulted in tragedy when stray machine-gun fire, meant for his father, killed his mother in 1946. Chris was 8 years old.
Overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his mother, who Mr. Tomaras described as “the sweetest and gentlest of human beings,” he forged ahead to continued his education in Drapetsona, the town where the family lived. Fortunately, his father remarried, for there were three young children to care for, Chris, younger brother Mike and sister, Helen.
After the civil war, Drapetsona was a city overrun with refugees, offering little opportunity for self-advancement. Mr. Tomaras was an exceptional student, and he vowed to make a better life for himself. Accepted at the Athens Graduate School of Economics and Business Sciences (now the University of Economics), he supported his education by doing odd jobs in the evenings and summers. Yet the prospects in Greece were bleak after his graduation and, on the advice of his father, who said, “America is the place to go”, Chris Tomaras began a journey that would lead him to a new and fulfilling life.
Journey to America
Mr. Tomaras embarked on his voyage to New York in 1957. Teeming with a sense of adventure, dressed in a new suit and with less than $100 in his pocket, this anxious young man, enrolled in Columbia University on a student visa. He also had a sponsor in South Carolina he knew little about. Unfortunately, the sponsor was not able to continue to support his student visa. Once again, through odd jobs, Mr. Tomaras earned just enough to survive in the city. He also had difficulty learning English. Ultimately, he had to no choice but to postpone school, as his student visa had expired.
Now, as an illegal immigrant, he fled to Birmingham, Alabama, the state’s largest city and a place that immigration authorities were least likely to look for “immigrants like me,” Mr. Tomaras told Greek USA in 2011. He landed a job in a restaurant kitchen and somehow managed to scrape together enough to lease a small sandwich shop. Using the same leasing strategy, he later operated a cocktail lounge and drive-in. At the end of five years, he had enough capital to open his own pizza restaurant.
While in Birmingham, he met Nancy Winstead, the Irish maiden who would champion his every endeavor and be his partner in what she called “Chris’ efforts to succeed.” Nancy had two children by a previous marriage, Michael and Linda, who Mr. Tomaras cared for as his own.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Tomaras earned the status of permanent resident, and soon became a U.S. citizen. Two years later, the Tomarases moved to Chicago, a large, vibrant Greek community and joined St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church.
Affectionately known as “The Gyros King”
Mr. Tomaras is known for many things, perhaps most notably as the founder of Kronos Foods, the largest Greek foods manufacturing company in the country at the time. Gyros, a sandwich made of meat (beef, lamb, pork, or chicken) cooked on a vertical rotisserie and wrapped in pita bread with tomato, onion and tzatziki (yogurt-sour-cream) sauce, was the number one product.
When Mr. Tomaras started out in the restaurant business in the late 1950s, gyros meats were a non-uniform, unappetizing product cooked on an unsightly broiler in front of customers. Deciding the equipment should be attractive and have “character,” he went about designing and patenting the vertical rotisserie, or Kronomatic broiler, that is used to make gyros in many Greek restaurants today.
It launched an empire: Kronos Foods.
The proceeds from the design and sale of the “gyros broiler” lead to Kronos Foods, which Mr. Tomaras, affectionately known as the “Gyros King”, launched as a meat processing plant. From a 2,000 square foot plant, he quickly expanded from selling 1,000 pounds of meat per week to 250,000 in a three-building operation. When he sold the company in 1994, sales had increased to close to a million pounds of gyros per week. The company also offered pita bread, tzatziki sauce, Greek pastries and imported specialty foods.
Mr. Tomaras never forgot the people who supported him along the way, especially his wife of 48 years, Nancy, who died of cancer in 2007; his brother, Mike, who passed away at age 50; and his management team and employees. The same happened after he sold Kronos and founded Tomaras Investments, Ltd., diving headfirst into private investments and philanthropy.
“Mr. T”, as many called this passionate, bespectacled visionary with graceful gestures and a beaming smile—a man who considered it his duty to be elegantly dressed in a business suit—never hesitated to share the credit for his success with all those who helped.
Life after Kronos
Anyone who knew Chris Tomaras knew that he was a man of endless ideas and boundless energy. Life after Kronos only meant a new beginning. From the sale of Kronos Foods, he launched his successful private investment firm, Tomaras Investments, Ltd. With holdings in in real estate, money markets, restaurants and several international companies, Tomaras put his money to work to do good deeds, most significantly through his support of countless philanthropic endeavors, the Greek Orthodox Church and educational programs within the Greek community.
Entrepreneurship was in his blood and, in July 2011, he opened “Sweet Tea Restaurant” in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a place that not only served delicious food cafeteria style, in an atmosphere of Southern hospitality—a dream he had for many years—it was a place that helped him stay connected to a city that offered him shelter and protection, as well as the beginning of his new life with his wife, Nancy.
“He talked about this type of cafeteria-style restaurant every time we spoke about restaurants,” said Tom Sotos, his business partner and dear friend. “He even wanted to convert a sports bar we owned together into a cafeteria style service. Unfortunately, it is a franchise and couldn’t be done, so he opened his own concept and ran with it.”
Naming the restaurant Sweet Tea paid homage to the sweet tea Southerners call “the house wine of the South”, Chris said, and offered him an alternative to “sitting at a desk,” a way to experiment with new recipes and continue the interaction with customers that he loved. At Sweet Tea, to illustrate his life’s journey, Mr. Tomaras commissioned Birmingham artist Ben Burford to create a 45-foot-long mural, which depicts all of the milestones he passed along the way—from Piraeus to Birmingham to Chicago.
Passion for philanthropy
Mr. Tomaras was an incredibly generous philanthropist who made significant contributions to several Greek institutions that support Greek education and offer assistance and services to the various Greek communities. He has left a legacy of philanthropy of good works.
Named “Distinguished Greek American” and recognized with the “Ellis Island Medal of Honor,” he was an Archon of the Order of St. Andrews of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and a member of Leadership 100. Mr. Tomaras served as a member of the Anatolia College Board of Trustees and was a founding member of the American Foundation of Hellenic Studies at Georgia State University.
In 2003, he became honorary citizen of Panama City, Panama, and in 2004, he was named “Hellene of the Year” by the Hellenic Bar Association of Illinois. In 2008, he donated $1,000,000 to the St. Iakovos Camp and Retreat Center of the Metropolis of Chicago. In 2010, he received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the Hellenic College-Holy Cross in Boston, MA.
Mr. Tomaras served in leadership positions in a number of civic, community, and business organizations. He served for three consecutive terms as President of the PanMessenian Federation of USA and Canada. He also served for five consecutive two-year terms as Vice President for North & South America of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, which focuses on the needs of the region’s Greek education efforts; on a just resolution to the occupation of Cyprus; the “Macedonia name” controversy; the Pontian Genocide, and Greece’s other national concerns.
It was his passion for education and his own experience in not being able to complete his college education that led him to create one of the most significant and rewarding philanthropic endeavors of his life, the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation. Founded in 1998, the mission of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation is to promote education in young Greek Americans so that they become meaningful contributors to American society. The foundation annually distributes $250,000 in scholarships to the most exceptional and financially deserving Greek American students in the country.
The foundation fulfills what Mr. Tomaras dedicated his later life to: increasing the educational opportunities for Greek youth, developing future leaders, and contributing to American society as a whole. It also represents Mr. Tomaras’ idea of Hellenism, a life marked by patriotism, gracious hospitality, daring courage, a responsible, moral work ethic, personal integrity and respect for the law—all of which are expressed in Greece’s history, culture, language, tradition and religion and which describe Chris Tomaras.
Greece, Forever in his heart
Greece, his native Piraeus, was deeply embedded in Mr. Tomaras’ heart and soul. The recent failings of the Greek economy and the country’s rampant corruption—things he viewed as a detriment to the fabric of Greek society deeply concerned him. Yet, Greece was home and he returned often with his family to relive his youthful memories and rejuvenate his mind, body and soul.
As he told Greek USA, “I love dearly all that Greece has to give (and take) … the warmth that is emitted in the air of the evening dusk, the hospitable offerings of the people everywhere, addressing you in plural, the tasty mezethakia at the small taverna that exists almost only at the pleasure of a few friends and the taste of a glass of wine sitting on the balcony of my home in Palaio Faliro, overlooking the calm waters beyond the yachts at the Floisvos marina.”
This is the Greece that Chris Tomaras fondly remembered. He felt great pride and passion for all Greece has given the world: democracy, the arts and humanities, architecture and medicine. America was his adopted home and he imparted the very best of Hellenic ideals and principles into American society. Chris Tomaras was a true Hellene and an outstanding American.
Chris Tomaras will be remembered for his love of Hellenism, entrepreneurial ingenuity, profound faith, extraordinary generosity, and devotion to friends, family and those in need.
Chris was the beloved husband of the late Nancy Tomaras; brother of Helen Tomaras Astin and the late Mike Tomaras. He is survived by his stepchildren, Michael (Carol) Winstead and Linda (Steve) Raye; his grandchildren, Kristi (JD) Weir and Niki (Donny) Burke; great-grandchildren Dylan, Michael, Alex, Jacob, Avery, and Elizabeth; nephew, Paul Gassel; and his dear family friends Elaine Takis Sotos; John (Nikol) Sotos and their children, Helene, Chrissa, and PJ; and Tom (Bessie) Sotos and their children, Panayiotis and Evelina; many cousins, nephews and friends in the US, Greece, and throughout the world.
Visitation Wednesday, October 21st from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm at Smith-Corcoran Funeral Home, 6150 N. Cicero Ave., Chicago. Family and friends will meet Thursday morning, October 22nd, at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church, 7373 N. Caldwell Ave. Niles, for funeral service at 10:30 am. Interment Memorial Park Cemetery, Skokie, IL.
By Chris’s request, kindly omit flowers. In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation, 17 N. Wabash Ave., Suite 600, Chicago, IL 60602.
Arrangements by ADINAMIS CORLISS BALODIMAS Funeral Directors, Ltd. 773-736-3833