Whether you pronounce it “Yee-roh” or “Gy-ro,” the sandwich loaded with thin, evenly sliced strips of lamb, onions, tomatoes and Tzatziki sauce is one of the best-selling items on the menu at Athens Greek Restaurant, located at 43 N. Lexington-Springmill Road, in Ontario.
“It’s called yee-roh,” Klodian Prifti, the owner of the restaurant, said. He quickly added that they’re both correct pronunciations. “I don’t want people to feel bad.”
Athens Greek Restaurant opened its doors, bringing delicious Greek flavors to Ontario in 2009 as an off-shoot of the original Athens (now known as Athena Greek Restaurant) that’s been in downtown Mansfield since 1977. Prifti became the owner in 2017.
“I am proud to be taking a legacy like this on,” Prifti said. For Prifti, that legacy is not only that of the owners he purchased the restaurant from, who opened the Ontario location - Myron Coblentz and Roger McCoy - but also that of Tim and Angie Ghessouras, the original founders of Athena Greek Restaurant downtown.
Owning Athens Greek Restaurant is a dream come true for Prifti and his wife, Anila. They came to the United States with very little and have been able to build a life and join a great legacy through the restaurant.
Prifti, who was born in Albania, spent a great deal of his youth in various parts of the Mediterranean. He moved from Albania when he was 18. He landed in Greece for seven years followed by Milan, Italy, for another year before he and his wife immigrated to the United States.
“We moved here back in 2004 with nothing in our pockets and we (both) worked two jobs for years,” said Prifti. Anila attended college while he worked in construction or at factories, as well as food service jobs.
Prifti spoke very little English at the time, mostly saying yes and no. However, he never lacked in drive. Prifti was determined to become acclimated to his new culture and to, perhaps, even own his own business one day.
While his wife, who spoke some English, attended classes and educated herself, he read books and practiced speaking English with her. They continued to pursue the American dream as they both learned more English, worked, and started their family.
“She’s my right hand. I couldn’t have done it without her,” Prifti said about his wife.
Having been a waiter in Greece, in addition to working various food service jobs in the past, Prifti knew he had always wanted to own a restaurant.
In 2016, when he was out of work, he found a job at Athens Greek Restaurant in Ontario and worked there for over a year when the owners at the time - Clobentz and McCoy - decided to sell. With the help of Mechanics Bank, Prifti was able to purchase the business and achieve his life-long dream.
“Yeah, all good people,” Prifti said when speaking of going through the financing process with Mechanics Bank. “You know Alex Rocks? He really rocks. He’s the man,” Prifti added, praising the excellent customer service he had received while going through the loan process.
The restaurant has been a family affair since Prifti purchased it. His wife, Anila, who is an X-ray technician at Avita, often helps out with the business, as well as his daughters, Iris, 14, and Era, 7.
“The oldest one, she is good at the register. The youngest one, not so much, but she is good at talking,” Prifti said
The family is no stranger to hard work or long hours. Prifti said 12-hour shifts are nothing.
He typically shops for supplies in the mornings and preps the immaculate restaurant for the rest of the day before opening at 11 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m.
Prifti has kept the menu much the same, not really changing much since taking over the business.
“I (have) added more stuff to it. I never took anything off of there. I added the homemade stuffed peppers,” he explained.
“I added like a Greek stir-fry type dish, and then we added goulash, mostly like a Hungarian goulash. I added a few more things, but I haven’t really changed anything,” he added. “If it works for them (speaking of the Ghessouras’s, Clobentz, and McCoy) all those years. It works for me.”
The father of two, who presently employs between eight and nine employees, is looking to add to his staff. He said his present crew, whom he praised, has stuck with him through the changes that have come with Covid as well as other transitions that have come along with him taking over the business.
When asked if he thought his daughters would ever eventually take over the restaurant he said he was not sure. It would be up to them. But his long-term goal for the business “is to keep working the magic and keeping it great.”
As he talked about the business, the light-hearted Prifti radiated the pride he has in having taken over the legacy and still having things go well. He believes that with hard work and dedication, we can make our dreams come true.
“I believe it is the promised land, dreams do come true. They still do, but, you gotta put in the work. They just don’t come to you. You gotta put the work in,” he said.
Though Prifti put in the work, he is also grateful to the people, such as Clobentz, the Ghessouras’ and the employees at Mechanics Bank, who have helped him make his dream a reality.
Athens Greek Restaurant is open six days a week. The business is open from 11 p.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The weekend hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed on Sunday.
Like most in the food service industry, Athens Greek Restaurant is seeking new employees and offers competitive wages.
Mechanics Bank presents the Courage at Work series, recognizing it takes incredible courage to start and run a business. As a local and independent bank, Mechanics understands that local businesses are the heartbeat of our community and would like to thank those businesses who call Richland County home.
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