Story By RMU Alumnus, Matt Kirouac | Photos by Neil John Burger Photography

From Little Italy to River West, the sky is the limit for Stax Café

For some folks in the restaurant industry, it’s a career that stems from a college job or a summer side gig. But for Spiro Tsaldaris, the owner of Chicago’s Stax Cafe {various locations}, restaurants are in his DNA. The local restaurateur grew up immersed in the business thanks to his father’s restaurant. After venturing off on his own, Stax Cafe has become one of the most acclaimed breakfast-focused eateries in the city and has been awarded a recommendation from the Michelin guide six years in a row. Spiro is now realizing the culmination of his dreams and applying those same familial roots that made him fall in love with the business to begin with.

Long before Spiro created Chicago’s collective pancake obsession at Stax Cafe, he was coming of age in his father’s restaurant.

“My father owned Brandy’s Restaurant by Midway,” he explains. “He bought it in ’89, when I was eight. On weekends, my dad would take me in, and I’d be sitting in that first booth, watching and engaging with the restaurant industry.” As Spiro recalls, the older he got, the more intrigued he became.

These early interactions and inspirations took root, and by the age of 16, his own entrepreneurial spirit was kicking in. “It’s in our blood, that entrepreneur’s mindset of running a business,” he adds. “In restaurants, you deal with so many people, and you have to love the process to actually be in it. Watching my dad and the different facets, from front of house to back of house, got me more and more intrigued. And the business aspect was enticing, even at a young age.”

When Spiro says he was raised in the restaurant business, he means it. “That’s the only thing I’ve been doing all my life,” he explains. “After high school and during college, I worked in my father’s restaurant.” With his mind—and his heart—set on the industry, he got his BA in business management from Robert Morris University and set out to open a small restaurant in Chicago with his father and uncle, further solidifying his restaurant roots with family. “I’m a by-product of my parents,” says Spiro, whose father and mother were first-generation American restaurateurs hailing from Greece and Macedonia, respectively. “I got my work ethic from my mother; she’s the hardest working person that I know.” Combining his mother’s ceaseless tenacity and his father’s entrepreneurial flare, Spiro was destined for success.

After his joint venture with his father and uncle didn’t pan out, his mind turned to breakfast, and he realized that in order to succeed in this notoriously difficult industry, he needed to find his niche. That’s when he realized he could put to use his longtime love affair with breakfast.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve loved breakfast. I would eat French toast for dinner,” he recounts. “I envisioned this in the market, incorporating all of those facets into a restaurant concept.” And Stax Cafe is the epitome of that vision. “I built it from scratch. I invented the name and the concept,” Spiro describes.

The first Stax Cafe opened in Little Italy in 2010, in what Spiro describes as a boutique-style space and neighborhood. “When I opened in 2010, the area was evolving,” he says. “Little Italy was known for all the Italian restaurants, but seeing the growth of the Medical District, UIC, and the increase of families in the neighborhood, those three different demographics made it a no-brainer.”

Another big selling point on Little Italy was the neighborhood’s innate “family feel,” something that’s been at the core of his career since he was clocking time at his father’s restaurant. And it’s a tenet that came full-circle when his wife, Heather Tsaldaris, joined the business in 2013.

“Just working together with her, we took the restaurant to another level,” Spiro recalls. “We work hand-in-hand, that’s how we operate.”

With complementary skill sets, the duo have further established Stax Cafe as a neighborhood staple on Taylor Street, as well as expanded to River West for location number two.

“The design for Stax two was totally my wife,” Spiro says of its more modern, industrial look. “She has a great eye, and she helped restructure the menu on Taylor Street.” In particular, he describes her knack for creating special dishes that become so successful they get added to the menu. One example is the Healthy Start: oatmeal pancakes made with fresh blueberries in the batter and topped with blueberry compote, Greek yogurt, granola, and honey. “That’s a pancake that my wife created, and it’s one of my better-sellers. People love it.”

Together, they’ve built a quintessential family-run restaurant that they use as a means of connecting with locals and cementing their legacy.

“For me, it’s about building relationships and being yourself,” says Spiro. “It’s more than just serving good food, it’s about being personable. That’s how we run it, by being who we are. We’re honest people building relationships with our regulars.” It’s the formula for success they’ve perfected on Taylor Street, and the one they’re replicating in River West.

“The River West neighborhood has a couple more years to go to become more established,” he explains. “With the trickle effect from neighboring areas, I see tremendous growth for River West, and I am excited to be part of it.”

In regards to the future, it’s as bright as the orange-hued dining room on Taylor Street.

“Our goal is to always improve, in every aspect of the business,” he says. “We look forward to building those relationships in River West that we’ve had on Taylor Street, an environment that makes customers feel like they’re part of the family.”

Along with his wife, Spiro aims to extend that ethos even further by opening up a couple more locations, enjoying the ride along the way. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” says Spiro. “I’m definitely living my dream.”

Original article can be found here.