Family bring traditional Greek cuisine to Waco
Story and Photos by Cameron Bocanegra
It is a sunny afternoon in Greece by the time 3-month-old and first generation Wacoan Kalliroi Kelly-Lentis wakes in her crib. She has her father’s blue eyes, with a tint of gold from her mother. The most American thing about her is her grandmother’s blood and the colorful bibs with English catchphrases. Her mother sleeps in a bed next to her, waiting for the baby’s morning babble. Her father sleeps in the other room to get as much rest without the baby’s wake-up calls before opening the restaurant, and soon her mother is picking her up before the first cry leaves her lips. It is a good morning if she wakes after 4 a.m., and by 8 a.m., Dorothy and Felipe Kelly-Lentis are backing out of their driveway. They take their time to drive the four miles to the restaurant, passing the churches and local businesses they have come to know as neighbors. With a bow, a bottle and two aprons, the three begin their day at the family business, Alpha Omega, a Greek restaurant on Franklin Avenue that Wacoans and tourists have come to appreciate for the dishes of culture and the couple behind the grill playfully bickering about who changed the music to an American station.
In the next hour, the rest of the employees clock in and begin their morning routine alongside Dorothy. They are a handful of young adults who are getting married, graduating, raising their first child, finishing 10th grade or just passing through with appreciation for a full stomach. Sometimes the busboys are Kalliroi’s cousins visiting from Greece and earning some extra money, but mostly it is the same six familiar faces passing through the kitchen and cooing at Kalliroi while she has her morning bottle with Dorothy.
It took 13 years since leaving her life in Greece for Dorothy to be a young business owner in the U.S., and to become a mother, it took four years of hope. Dorothy and her family moved from Rhodes, Greece, to West, Texas, in 2000.
Dorothy said, “I didn’t hate it here, but I was a 13-year-old taken from what my everyday was and brought to a different country. People spoke different. The lifestyle was different. It was shell-shocking. Swim whenever you want in Greece. Go to the park whenever you want. I came here and they said, ‘We don’t have a swim team, but we have volleyball.’ It was different.”
Felipe speaks mostly Greek, so Dorothy does a lot of the talking, but on a good morning when Kalliroi sleeps in late like today, Felipe is singing along while kneading and rolling the pita dough in a cloud of flour. Even the hostess sings along to the song after so much time of listening, though she only knows the words and not their meaning. Dorothy’s father stops by like most mornings. The restaurant is not open yet, but a pot of coffee has already disappeared and the cooks are shredding the lamb with haste. Dorothy and her father, Aris, talk politics and business over coffee made from imported grounds, and breakfast gyros fresh off the grill.
“My father used to have a butcher/supermarket business in Greece. My uncle did some bad finances. (Dorothy’s parents) just wanted to get us out of that situation because it was getting pretty heated. Since my mom was American, we came here.”
Natural culinary skills are a family trait. Her father owns a sister restaurant in Waco called 1424. The family’s first restaurant in West, Yianni’s, is where Dorothy worked for tips while growing up and going to culinary school.
“You grow up by the ocean,” Dorothy said wistfully. “You have beautiful surroundings. You can roam wherever you want without the fear of where kids go. We came here, lived in a two-bedroom apartment, and one person was on top of another person. We were safe, but the fear that my parents had was greater than what we could understand at the time.”
When she and her father finish breakfast, Dorothy goes to the kitchen to bake Greek desserts like baklava, eckmeck and galaktoboureko while Kalliroi watches her mother play with the batters and creams. Felipe cuts and cleans the chicken across the room. Every half hour, something is bound to interrupt Dorothy’s steadied, gloved hand while icing a perfected pastry. A customer has questions about Rhodes; the hostess broke a bottle of wine; a line is forming; the busboy has called in sick; the dishwasher is late; shipments just dropped off damaged and spilling on the patio; and in the office, Kalliroi sleeps with her elephant-shaped pacifier to the familiar lullaby of the restaurant bustle as hungry Magnolia tourists flood in through noon.
“When Dorothy got pregnant we knew things would change, but we were happy for them. We don’t mind Kalli being here at all. She’s a break. Whoever is free is going to be playing with her when Dorothy is busy cooking or baking. We each take our time with her if we’re slow on orders,” said Wacoan and Alpha Omega cook, Jessica Martin.
There is a lull in the day once the travelers are gone, and the regulars trickle in for orders that are rung up as soon at they walk through the door. At the biggest table, Dorothy lays out a spread of feta fries, gyros, guacamole and sparkling water for Felipe and herself. They have been married since 2013 after she met Felipe during her annual visit to Greece, just six months before they married. Their summer love ended, but when Felipe visited Dorothy in the U.S., he did not want to have to wait for another visit.
“I said, ‘You marry me or go back. Pick. We don’t have to say anything,’” said Dorothy. “We went to the courthouse, and it was nerve-wracking, but it felt good. It felt like I was doing a good thing. We went and got married. We didn’t tell anyone we were married until we knew we were going to be together.”
A few years later, Dorothy and Felipe were opening their restaurant and hanging Greek art and photos of their family taken in Rhodes. They said it was awkward and scary, but they believed in each other and their opportunity to thrive in Waco while sharing their culture through their talent. They used to spend 13 hours every day behind the counter until they could grab a drink at the local bar or hang out with other generations of Greek immigrants who seemed to gravitate between Dallas, Austin and Waco. These friendships awaken their natural tongue. It isn’t the same as kicking back in the butcher shops where the couple first met in Rhodes. And yes, things have changed since Kalliroi was born, but it is a life that satisfies them with well earned happiness.
After lunch, Dorothy’s mother comes by to pick up Kalliroi for the rest of the afternoon, so Dorothy can focus on the oncoming early dinner rush that kicks off the evening. Bottles of imported wine are uncorked and the lights are dimmed. She and Felipe cook next to their employees, whipping hummus and wrapping spanakopitas just the same. The Greek shouts from the kitchen paint the customers intrigued, and the authenticity of the restaurant comforts them. Felipe rushes in and out of the building with both hands on his hips to check traffic as if it will change the flow of customers.
Felipe said, “We are very grateful to be part of the Waco community. The customers, the local people, and the businesses are what make us feel like we are cared for. Yes, we are extremely tired, but we love to cook and the support of the locals gives us enough strength to keep doing this every day. Being here every day keeps us involved. We don’t want to ever let it go.”
When the sun begins setting, Dorothy says goodnight to the restaurant, but Felipe stays to close at 9 p.m. She turns onto Franklin Avenue and checks the backseat out of instinct even though she is on her way to pick up Kalliroi. The duo will settle with each other on the couch and wait the few hours until Felipe arrives home, smelling of oregano and parsley. In Greece, the moon is coming up. In Waco, Dorothy does not miss it too much. In Waco, she has made two homes, a family, and a future away from Rhodes.
A Day in the Life of Dorothy, Kalliroi and Felipe Kelly-Lentis
4 a.m. Wake-up call
8 a.m. Leave house to go to the restaurant
9 a.m. Employees arrive and begin morning routines at Alpha Omega
Sometime in between Begin baking, eat breakfast with Dorothy’s father
10:30 a.m. Doors open, tourists begin arriving for food
12 p.m. Business dies down, phone orders are filled
After lunch Dorothy’s mother picks up the baby so Dorothy can focus on preparing for the coming dinner rush
Sunset Dorothy goes to pick up the baby
9 p.m. Felipe closes the restaurant
A few hours later Felipe arrives home