South L.A. Food Diaries: Behind the counter at Olympian Burgers

“99.9 percent good vibes.”

This is how John Papachristos, a partner in the South L.A.-based food joint Olympian Burgers, describes his experiences with his restaurant.

Situated on Vermont Avenue — a five-minute drive from the University —  Olympian Burgers resembles an old-school diner with tiled floors, booths along the windows and a queue of customers snaking along one side of the establishment. Customers waiting to order can watch Olympian Burgers’ dishes, including french fries and burgers, being prepared on the grill and fryer located right behind the counter.

The walls are lined with pictures of local schools, a testament to Papachristos’ commitment to his community. Since moving here, Papachristos has watched the area drastically improve in diversity and safety to become a place he is happy to call home.

On the grill · Olympian Burgers first opened its doors in 1988. Today, the joint is a staple in the South L.A. community. (Julia Rosher | Daily Trojan)

Olympian Burgers is not new to this area and has conjured up quite a fan base. While the original restaurant opened in 1988, Papachristos took over in 2001, four years after he came to Los Angeles — his wife’s hometown — from Greece. Papachristos saw something that many others failed to see in South Los Angeles: opportunity. With a knack for seizing opportunities, he turned a small local restaurant into a thriving business.

Behind the ordering counter, the kitchen bustles with smiling workers navigating through racks and racks of charbroiled chicken, a house specialty. This dish is served with large portions of crisp-skinned, fall-off-the-bone-soft pieces of chicken, along with a slice of lemon and well-seasoned fries. The aroma of the freshly marinated chicken pieces is enough to conjure growling stomachs and salivating mouths.

Papachristos says that this dish is Olympian Burgers’ claim to fame, but glancing around the restaurant, it’s clear that there’s something for everyone given the plethora of bestsellers on the menu. The restaurant is populated by people of all ages — from a woman enjoying burritos and burgers with her two sons to an elderly couple splitting a sandwich and fries.

“It motivates me to see that the customers are happy and that keeps me going,” Papachristos said, turning his gaze toward the occupied tables surrounding him.

Beyond his customers, Papachristos cares deeply about his colleagues. During an interview with the Daily Trojan, he insisted on getting “all the guys” together for a picture. Looking at the line of people with white baseball caps huddled up on either side of him, putting their arms around one another, it’s easy to tell that he created a family out of employees and coworkers.

Julia Rosher | Daily Trojan

He insists on treating people with respect and honesty and being flexible with mistakes.

“We give them a second and third chance,” Papachristos said. “It’s not like working in a corporate environment.”

Papachristos attributes his choice to create such an environment to his childhood in Greece, where family was central to everyday life. Papachristos has a unique ability to make people feel at home; as a result, some of his employees have worked with him for over a decade.

The nature of this work environment brings him back to the restaurant every day at 9 a.m. and keeps him there until after 7 p.m. Despite all of his time and effort spent at Olympian Burgers, Papachristos is quick to attribute his restaurant’s success to loyal customers and the hard work of his employees.

“Just for me, it is very important to pick what you love to do and what you like to do and sometimes what you’re capable of doing,” he said.

The strategy has served him well, judging by his ever-present grin. In the future, Papachristos dreams of expanding the business, but remains true to his family roots when talking about his hopes of providing his son, a senior in high school, with a good education.

He has one piece of advice for college students, a maxim that he embodies through his character and through Olympian Burgers: “There are no limits.”