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The local legacy behind family-owned Crown Burgers

The story behind a Utah culinary staple

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This is what I call living the dream. Coming to America and living the dream. We did that. – Rula Katzourakis

SALT LAKE CITY — Whatever you do, don’t call John or Rula Katzourakis during the lunch hour. You might think that after 38 years of owning and operating Crown Burgers, a favorite culinary fixture in Salt Lake City, they might be kicking up their feet on a beach somewhere, tipping their hats to the American dream they are living.

You’d be wrong. If you call at midday, as someone did recently, Rula will say: “It’s the lunch hour. I can’t talk right now.” End of conversation.

It’s rush hour at Crown Burgers, and John and Rula, 76 and 70, respectively, are following a routine as choreographed as "Swan Lake." John still opens the store every morning and cooks the food for the lunch crowd, standing in front of the same broiler he has worked for nearly four decades. She takes orders at the register, does the scheduling and chats up customers.

“Why aren’t you retired?” they ask Rula regularly.

To answer that question, you need to know a few things first. The first of their family came to America from Greece more than a century ago. John and Rula and their brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces own and operate seven restaurants, six of them in Salt Lake Valley. About 30 family members are in the business and twice that number worked there over the years before moving on to other professions. It is a point of family pride that there is at least one family member — usually more — on the premises at every restaurant during business hours.

“Unless it’s your own blood and sweat, you’re not going to care as much,” says George, one of John and Rula’s three children.

And that is why John and Rula are still on the job.

“When you work for someone else you leave the problems at work; it’s over when you go home,” says Rula. “When you own the business you worry about it 24 hours a day. You care.”

They have never spent a nickel on advertising, relying instead on customers to do their advertising for them. Customers will tell you Crown Burgers' offerings are the ultimate comfort food: fresh, thick hamburgers, onion rings and fry sauce that are made daily, a menu of about 100 items, including salads, fish, chicken and a mix of Greek cuisine.

There’s no heat lamp. Customers can watch John cook the food. Let Rula engage in a little more free advertising: “We use good meat, no fillers, and these are not skinny burgers. We get the meat fresh every day. We make everything fresh every day.”

LDS missionaries have been known to come straight from the airport to Crown Burgers when they return. One Florida man showed up at the counter and said he needed 15 Crown Burgers to take to a board meeting — in Florida. Another out-of-state visitor said she had to take a Crown Burger on the plane back to her home at the request of her son.

“It makes us feel good,” says Rula.

The truth is, John and Rula have so many loyal customers by now that many of them are like friends, which is another reason they are still going to work every day.

“We should be retired,” says Rula. “We don’t have too many hobbies. And we kind of enjoy being here.”

Sitting in a booth at the restaurant, she looks around for a moment and says: “This is what I call living the dream. Coming to America and living the dream. We did that. We put in a lot of hard work. We’re not afraid to work. We’ll work all day long if we have to.”

The dream began to unfold when Rula’s father, Michael Katsanevas, left the Greek isle of Crete and came to America in 1910. He wound up fighting in World War I for the U.S. After the war, he returned to Crete, and he and his wife, Maria, started a family that would eventually total 10 children. During World War II, they were burned out of their home and hid in caves to escape the Nazis.

In the aftermath of World War II, there was little opportunity in a land that was recovering from so much devastation. Michael returned to America, this time with his three oldest children. He found work as a janitor at Hill Air Force Base and hoped to earn enough money to return to Greece with a nest egg. He decided instead to bring his family to America. As Rula tells it, “The people he worked with loved him so much that they passed the hat around and helped pay for the expenses to send for his family.”

The family arrived in the U.S. the day after Christmas, 1954. Rula was 8 years old. Their arrival was chronicled by Time Magazine in a story of immigrants seeking opportunity, complete with a photo of the family on the jetway.

It wasn’t until 1963 that John, one of seven children, showed up in the U.S. In the early part of the 20th century, many Greeks came to the U.S. to work in the mines and on the railroads. John’s uncle Nicholos was one of them, and when one of his sons returned to Greece he urged his cousin John to emigrate to the U.S. John joined his uncle in Utah in 1963. The day after he arrived he met Rula. Both of their families had come from the same small village of Kambos, living within a couple of blocks of each other — the parents knew one another — but John and Rula never met or saw each other until that day in Utah. They married a year later.

John, who didn’t speak English when he arrived, worked in a steel mill for a few years before Rula’s brother Jim convinced him to move to California to open a burger restaurant together. The business was, according to the family, “not real busy,” but it did give birth to the family's signature creation, the Pastrami burger, which would prove to be a hit in Salt Lake City. John returned to Utah, and a year later, in 1978, he and Rula’s brother, Nick, opened the first Crown Burgers.

“We did well immediately,” says Rula. “The people were lined up all the way outside the door. It was amazing. It happened so fast.” Eighteen months later they tore down the restaurant and doubled the seating capacity to 150. John and Rula still work at that original store at 377 E. 200 South.

“I think it did so well because there really wasn’t a lot of burger places then,” says Rula. “And we didn’t just serve hamburgers, and we aimed to have freshness and quality.”

Greeks and restaurants — particularly burger joints — would take off. Eventually, a number of Greek-owned hamburger restaurants would thrive in Salt Lake City — Crown Burgers, Astro Burger, Olympus Burger, Atlas Burger and Hellenic Burger.

“When we came here, we didn’t have an education and so this was the best way to open a business,” says Rula. “Greek people like to work. They try to make something in their lives.”

For years John worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, opening the store at 3 a.m. to prepare for the day and cook for the customers, staying until 5 p.m. Then he went home and went straight to bed, only to repeat the process the next day.

“He wanted to do that,” says Rula. “He wanted it to come out right. He just wouldn’t hand it over to anyone else.”

John and Rula were driven to succeed, not only to support his family’s current needs, but he also to create future employment for his children.

“We wanted to take care of our kids,” says Rula. “We didn’t want to tell them goodbye, do your own thing.” Although some chose to pursue other occupations, most of the next generation have continued to work in the family business.

Sitting beside Rula in the restaurant after the completion of another lunch hour — the calm after the storm — John is mostly silent as his wife tells their story, preferring to let her do the talking. In what passes for a moment of loquaciousness, he does venture to say: “We have a lot of opportunity in this country. Back in Greece we could do nothing. We came here and had opportunity. We don’t have an education. We have to work hours, hours and hours.”

He looks toward the broiler across the room. “If I had a penny for every hamburger I cooked there I’d be a millionaire,” he says, smiling.

These days John and Rula allow themselves the luxury of leaving work about 1:30 p.m. They have entrusted more and more of the business to their children and other family members.

“The kids are really good,” says Rula. “They look after things. It’s their legacy. If they don’t do well they’re not going to have anything to do.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com