Obituary for Chris Tomaras 1937-2015
IMMIGRANT BECAME CHICAGO GYROS PIONEER
by Graydon Megan
Published Sunday, November 1, 2015 in the Chicago Tribune
"He had a lot of failures along the way, went bankrupt many times," said longtime friend Tom Sotos. "He just kept fighting. His drive and motivation were just unmatched. There was no chance he wasn't going to succeed."
Tomaras established the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation to provide college scholarships to students of Greek heritage.
"He wanted people to expand their intellectual horizons," Sotos said. . . . .
Tomaras was born in Piraeus, Greece. He was 8 during the Greek Civil War when his mother was killed by stray gunfire. Tomaras grew up near Athens and studied for a time at what is now Athens University of Economics and Business.
But he saw little opportunity in post-war Greece and in 1957 came to New York on a student visa to begin studies at Columbia University.
After both his money and his visa ran out, he moved to Birmingham, Ala., thinking it was a place where he might escape notice by immigration authorities. According to his stepson, Michael Winstead, he and a buddy lived first in a closed hotel, without electricity, water or heat.
He found a job in a steakhouse, learning the food business from the bottom up. It was there he met Nancy Winstead, who had two children he raised as his own. They got married and worked together in a number of businesses. She died in 2007.
In Birmingham, he used the money he saved to lease spaces for a string of businesses, his stepson said. He was first able to lease a parking lot. That led to a hot dog stand, where he had one employee to help him as he worked 14-hour days seven days a week. Next was a lounge and hamburger place and finally a franchise pizza place he and Nancy worked together. Except for the hot dog stand, most of the businesses struggled, but Tomaras kept trying new ideas.
"Nothing held him down," Winstead said. "He'd come up against a wall, he'd just climb it."
By 1960, Tomaras was a permanent U.S. resident and not long after became a citizen. Two years later, the family moved to Chicago.
Winstead said Tomaras started in Chicago with another hot dog stand on the South Side and eventually got a sports bar near Wrigley Field. It was there he started working on ideas for gyros meat and the equipment to cook it.
He noticed that the meats used in gyros sandwiches weren't uniform from one place to the next and that the equipment used to cook the meat in front of customers was often unsightly. Tomaras decided to start designing equipment and the result was the Kronomatic vertical rotisserie, still used to make gyros in many restaurants today.
Sales of the rotisserie provided money for a processing plant for the gyros meat. Tomaras founded Kronos Foods in 1975. By the time he sold the company in 1994, it was selling hundreds of thousands of pounds of gyros meat per week, along with pita bread, sauces and other specialty foods.