Off the menu

Just before last call, Tarpon Springs' menu barkers lament the end of an era.

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Nick the Greek has dinner plans for you.

"You ready for a menu?" the stocky, tanned barker asks passersby along Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs, across the street from the world-famous Sponge Docks. He looks 40, but has the energy of an ADD-driven teenager.

With a simple "No thank you," the woman walking by thinks the encounter is over.

"How about a foot massage? Oil change? Winning lottery numbers? I'm single! I'm single! How you doin'???" Nikos Tsoutsos rapid-fires offers to potential customers at least until he gets a smile, and in one case, a woman takes down his phone number to give to her niece.

Peter Kirov, a 15-year-old in a baseball cap, takes a more gentle approach to his job, with a standard but sweet, "Would you like a menu for Mama's Greek Cuisine? Best food in town, guaranteed."

The two generations of Greek-Americans working the sidewalk this Saturday afternoon are carrying on a decades-old tradition of menu barkers who promote the food of the two dozen nearly identical restaurants in the neighborhood. They know their days are numbered: In fact, three days later, on June 6, the Tarpon Springs city commission would vote to ban the sidewalk solicitors because of complaints they've become too aggressive.

But today Tsoutsos and Kirov are eager to explain why the ban is a bad idea — and why their pending unemployment isn't their fault.

Tsoutsos' street savvy isn't surprising for someone who grew up in Hell's Kitchen ... and Chelsea ... and Jersey City ... and, of course, Greece. Within two minutes, he's taken me around the world and back, letting me know he used to be a professional wrestler with (now Hillsborough County Commissioner) Brian Blair, that he hung with N.W.A. in Memphis in the '80s, and that he lived in Hollywood until he was awarded custody of his son — whom he's now workin' the sidewalk to support.

"He also knows Doctor Dre," says Kirov.

Tsoutsos concedes that some hawkers are guilty of what he calls "ethical violations" — blocking people's paths, giving a menu to someone who is already carrying food in leftover containers, walking into the street or across the street to try and make your pitch. It's all of these things that prompted the ban — but the local consensus is, it wasn't these guys, but a group of girls who came to be nicknamed "the cheerleading squad" for tactics like aggressively jumping in front of people, and according to Tsoutsos, ripping competitors' menus out of tourists' hands. A local gift shop owner videotaped the cheerleading squad in action, and gave the tape to police. Soon after, the city commission decided to step in.

"It's a few bad apples that spoil the bunch," explains Tsoutsos. "People that don't give the respect to the tourists that they need to have. Nobody wants harassment."

The pending ban is on everybody's mind today in the tight-knit community. Local denizen Michael John passes by and, with good-natured sarcasm, yells at the barkers, "Don't be hasslin' the tourists!" John says he respects the tradition; his first job as a teen was selling tickets on the sponge exhibition boat. At the same time, he thinks the solicitors have become a bit intrusive, and their antics turn off the tourists. But he also believes there's got to be a solution besides a ban. He suggests the South Beach (Miami) approach, where if "people want to do some marketing, put a pretty girl or a good-lookin' guy with a dish of food out on the podium in front of your restaurant and go from there."

Plates of baklava, spanokopita and lamb shish kabobs along the sidewalk could certainly bring in the crowds, but the menu-hawking method is too ingrained, and too effective, for restaurants to abandon it willingly. Kirov claims he can get "64 out of 89" people to take a menu and eat at Mama's; he says it's hard to predict who will take the bait, but overall he's more successful handing them out to females. "Because I just like girls. I'd rather touch a girl's hand than a guy's."

His self-proclaimed "boyish charm" is apparently in effect today. Lynette, a blonde soccer-mom from Brandon, heads with menu in hand toward Mama's after comparing the prices with other menus she's collected. She came up for the afternoon, and says she has no problem with the greeters who helped her make an economical choice, arguing "it's free speech, it's good advertising. And it helps them because they're off the beaten path."

Mama's Greek Cuisine, along with Tsoutsos' employer, the Dodecanese Restaurant and Bakery, are both family-owned Greek eateries located down Athens Street, off the main drag. Their not-quite-prime location makes their street promoters all the more important, as most tourists tend not to venture off the gift-shop-filled strip along the Anclote River.

Dodecanese owner Vicki Pastrikos says the barkers can bring her 20 tables on a busy weekend day, which is important because hers is the last eatery at the end of the block.

"Because we're far up the street, nobody knows were up here," she laments, explaining that the menu-hawkers on the Boulevard have been a key part of keeping her in business since the place opened seven years ago. "If we have somebody down there, it's gonna help us. But by them stopping this Tuesday, its' gonna affect us a lot."

Pastrikos says she thinks the city should set up a booth where all the restaurants can make their menus available. She tells me that, along with other restaurant owners, she plans to speak at the city commission meeting in a few days. (But according to at least one news report, no one showed up to object.)

"The irony of the whole thing is that everybody's related," says Tsoutsos, who has worked for at least two of the restaurants. "The chef at the Dodecanese was the chef at Pappas for 30 years ... They're all cousins, I mean like close cousins ... And all fighting amongst themselves."

What's even worse, says Tsoutsos, as he compliments a tourist for "walking hand in hand with his lovely 'daughter'"(hustler's translation: wife, or maybe even mother) is that he knows he's appreciated by the people, and that's not being considered. "Ninety-five percent of the people, it doesn't bother them. The 5 percent send e-mails in. Nobody sends one into the mayor [saying] 'Hey, we met these really cool guys with menus. Hey, they're really great. We love them.' They don't write that. They only hear the negative."

Sadly, from now on, they won't hear anything at all.

Andrew Stelzer is a reporter and news anchor for WMNF-88.5 FM.

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