Irene Karageorge says she knew she “would never be in the restaurant business.” But, that was 13 years ago when a self-described midlife crisis took her from financial management to what is now the Veranda Bistro.
Located in the Hollins Plaza, just north of Hollins University, the restaurant was supposed to be just a bakery and coffee shop. Her husband, Chris, said he supported her move but didn’t think a bakery would pay the bills. So a sandwich shop was born in the former Chico and Billy’s space. She says they started with sandwiches, burgers and pizzas, “with no plates!”
Why the unusual location next to a gas station? Karageorge says her family lives nearby and were longtime customers of the previous restaurant. She says they used to go there every Friday night, and she would think, “it would be a cute place.” When the opportunity presented itself, she took advantage.
She didn’t go into the venture with the idea of doing Greek and Italian food. But, she says Hollins professors would come in for sandwiches and, knowing her background, would ask her for Greek food. She started with gyros, spanakopita and avgolemono, a creamy lemon chicken and rice soup. She laughs as she says she would be on the phone with her mother for step-by-step instructions for the soup.
She says her Greek food is all from scratch and is a different caliber from other restaurants. The Italian part of the menu grew out of the space’s previous life as a pizza place. Karageorge kept the brick oven pizzas and added her own style—homemade crusts and sauces. She notes they specialize in making everything themselves.
Despite initial plans for a career in banking, Karageorge has the restaurant business in her blood. She grew up in her family’s Theodorou’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh. Chris’ family has 100 years of experience in the Roanoke restaurant landscape. They are the family behind such local favorites as the Roanoke Weiner Stand, the City Lunch Restaurant, Pete’s Snack Shoppe & Delicatessen, Le Gourmet Restaurant and La Maison du Gourmet.
Veranda Bistro—yes, it has a lovely veranda with plenty of outdoor seating and a view of a creek—is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday and for dinner Saturday night. They also do catering, which grew out of customers’ requests. Karageorge says they have done catering jobs for up to 300 people.
She says she is a hands-on manager, cooking and baking every day.
“I have a crew, but I’m part of the crew,” she says, adding, “I’m also in charge of quality control.”
She’s obviously good at all of that because Veranda Bistro has never had to advertise. Their success has come from a strong customer base, including Hollins University, and word of mouth. Because of the restaurant’s location, it has become quite popular with snowbirds that travel through the area twice a year. Karageorge laughs as she says they might be more well-known out of the area than locally.
One of the reasons for the customer loyalty—besides the food—might be Karageorge herself.
“Someone walks in as a customer and leaves as part of the family. We know all their stories,” she says, adding that her staff is the same way.
Last year, she took a group of customers to Greece and Italy to explore the food and wine of the two countries. She said she would love to do more of that. And, she says, there will eventually be a book with recipes and all those customer stories.
But, in the meantime, she says, “I’m happy right where I am. I truly love what I do. I do it right from the heart. I smile every day.”