Walk into Salut Kitchen Bar in Tempe, and you’ll soon encounter Taso Tirkas. The 33-year-old Tempe resident from Cypress co-owns the restaurant, and is constantly seen milling about the space chatting up diners and drinkers and charming them with his enthusiasm and worldliness. The spot has quickly become a Tempe stand-out since its opening last year for good reason — the menu blends cuisines into tasty handcrafted offerings, the beer and wine selection is plentiful, with more than 100 wines offered, and the atmosphere is both relaxed and classy.
While Tirkas is thrilled with the success of Salut, he’s also working on a new venture, a mobile application called Ufficient, which puts users directly in touch with a variety of service providers and allows users to vet them before hiring by perusing reviews and making sure they’re appropriate for the job. The app is currently in beta testing, and Tirkas is confident it will also be a hit.
Read on for how he’s created his businesses, and check out a video of him talking about his favorite reasons for living in the Valley below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came here to go to ASU for business and marketing when I was 22. I’m from the island of Cyprus, a small island close to the Middle East on the Mediterranean Sea, close to Greece, Turkey and Egypt.
I came here because my brother, cousin and uncle were at ASU. I was choosing between London and ASU for college and had never been to the States. I was at an American college over in Cyprus, the University of Indianapolis, so I was able to transfer all my credits. I had been to London before and didn’t want to go there, because it’s very moody weather.
How did you get involved with the restaurant industry in the Valley?
I used to work for a Greek restaurant in town that promised me a franchise, and I was young and motivated at 22 years old. I had never cooked in my life, but wanted to get involved in the business because it seemed very interesting. I’m a very social person and love talking to people. Nothing worked out, though, even though they promised me, because I didn’t know anything about restaurants.
I dropped out of school in May of 2005 to start Cyprus Grill, a small Greek quick-service restaurant, located at 20th St. and Camelback Road, which was the first location of the restaurant. I had thoughts of making my friends partners and still going to school, but the restaurant business wasn’t as easy as it looked. It was very, very hard, and for a kid who was in the country for a year and a half, it was even harder. I had worked eight months as a server and became a restaurateur over night.
We opened up the doors, and as amazing as it sounds, we got slammed. We were very, very busy, and it was interesting, because over a period of six months, we were making our money back as far as getting a decent return on investment to keep us happy.
By October, a friend of mine offered to open a second location. I was young and ignorant, so I said, “Yes.” I ended up not going back to school in August. By November 2005, we signed a lease, and by February, we opened up Cyprus Grill in Tempe.
I ended up opening up four locations with partners at each location, with all of them incredibly busy. My partners and I ended up having different goals and focuses, so it didn’t really work out even though the places were getting busy. We made mistakes. We over-expanded, and we weren’t organized.
In March 2008, when I opened up my fourth location in Peoria, for a few months, it was beautiful. But, when the economy hit around September 2008, I shut down three of them. One of them, because I was financially struggling, I had to sell. Currently, the Cyprus Grill in Phoenix is still open because I sold it. The owner of that one opened up another one in Chandler.
In 2009, I ended up losing everything, filed for a million bucks in bankruptcy, and started looking for a job left and right. My brother Pete, who happened to be here and was an electrical engineer major and a smart guy, wanted to open up a restaurant. He asked me if I’d be interested in helping him create a new concept. I said, “You know, brother, I love you. Let’s do that.” We opened up Oliveo Grill, which he still owns. I started as a driver, working in the kitchen, and managing. Then, he ended up getting a job as an electrical engineer after a year and a half. He asked me to manage the whole place.
I was through my bankruptcy, so I helped him build up the business over there. I still couldn’t get the financials to open up another restaurant on my own, so I managed that one for three and a half years, which I’m still kind of overseeing, and I inspired him to open up a pizza place with another friend I had. They opened up Oliveo Pizza, and I came up with the logos and menus, and both of them are very happy and doing very well.
After that, it was interesting, because I had gained enough credibility from people, like my partner here, David Freedman, who is an amazing partner and probably the best one I’ve ever had.
How did Salut come about?
When I was able to get out of being the manager of Oliveo Grill and Oliveo Pizza, I wanted to create my own thing and was looking at this location probably four years ago. I got it two years ago. I was kind of creating a vision of what I wanted this place to become. I had restaurants in Phoenix, Biltmore, Mesa, Tempe, and Peoria, and I knew the market over here and that there was something missing.
My partner David has an office next door. When I would come over and visit him and hang out, I would tell him to keep an eye on this — “If they ever go out of business, let me know, and I would love to sign a lease.” David owns the magazine Tempe12 and is an incredible businessman. We were friends and just hung out, and he didn’t know anything about restaurants before, even though now he knows almost everything.
Two years ago, I was going to Cyprus for a trip, and I was in his office and told him I was leaving the next week. I asked him if he would like to come with me, and 10 seconds later, he booked a ticket and came with me and stayed about 15 days with me. While at the bar in Cyprus, we were drinking at the bar. We all said, “Cheers,” and he said, “Salut.” I said, “David, that’s a beautiful name for the restaurant.”
The next day, we were at a coffee shop, and we told one of my friends, Michael, who is a designer, we wanted to create a restaurant/bar in Arizona. “Here is the name, see if you can come up with the logo.” Michael was like, “OK, what do you want the place to be?” I said I wanted it to be kind of a wine bar, Mediterranean-inspired, and have coffee inside. He put the logo together right there on a folded piece of paper, and I had it in my pocket for maybe five months.
When the time came, David called me up on a Saturday morning and told me the place just got emptied. On Monday morning, I was here talking to the landlord. We ended up raising about $300,000 from friends and family to put this together. We opened up in April 2013.
How has business been going so far?
It’s been incredibly amazing. I’m impressed with the clientele we’re getting over here. It’s not your average ASU/Tempe crowd everybody thinks of. We’ve been getting people traveling from North Scottsdale, Central Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, and Ahwatukee, and the cliente consists of 25-year-olds to 65-year-olds. It’s very interesting people, and you don’t really see students. If you do, they’re 22 or 23.
It’s become a couples place, a Sunday hang-out, a happy hour place. The vision became a reality. It’s impressive how when you drive things in your head how they come to be reality, and that’s what I wanted to create with this. I wanted to create a spot for everybody. I can bring a girlfriend, you can bring your wife, I can have a business dinner, hang out for a happy hour. It satisfies everybody. It has such an interesting vibe.
David and I and someone from the pizza place built the tables using pallet wood. I was inspired by pallets when I was in Amsterdam five years ago, at the wine bar there. We got pallets from backyards and put everything together. It came out to be more than my expectations.
I didn’t want it to just be a restaurant where you come and eat and leave. I wanted it to be a place where people come in and just hang out, where you feel good coming here. Even the people working here, I try to give an emphasis on customer service, not 10-star, maestro steakhouse customer service, but the personal touch to make them feel comfortable. That’s why the dress code is come in, look good, and be yourself and be happy. Don’t be pissed off because I made you wear high heels or a shirt or pants.
How would you characterize the menu?
My whole inspiration with the menu is that I wanted something between American and Mediterranean. The chef calls it Ameriterranean, and that’s exactly what it is. You have hummus nachos, which is one of our most popular items. We have people who hate hummus, but once they try the flavor of these, they fall in love with it. There are tapas, the Spanish touch, the bruschetta and paninis, the Italian touch, the burgers, the American theme. It gives a little bit to anybody.
Why was it important to you to have more than 100 wines on your menu?
The whole thing was to be a nice wine bar, but at the same time, it’s not just a wine bar. You see wine bars across town, and they’re either considered a wine bar or a restaurant. A wine bar with a lot of different food choices is kind of missing in Tempe.
I used to love going to Postino, but I wouldn’t go there more than twice a week. I’ll go there once just to hang out and get a glass of wine, but there’s a limited menu on the food and beer. Having more than 100 bottles of wine, it gives something to everybody. We try to do a bunch of specials with the wine.
How would you characterize the Arizona dining scene, and how does Salut stand out?
In my opinion, Fox Restaurant Concepts has created a different vibe in Arizona. (Owner Sam Fox) put a different touch on the industry in Arizona and changed the way people see Arizona as far as the restaurant experience, as far as design. The food, I’m not really a big fan of, but the design is very unique.
The way Salut comes in place is picking up pallets and all this old wood from the backyard and creating this concept that is impressive and cozy. We used a part from a fire suppression system to create the tap for the draft beer. Under the bar, we put wine openers for purse holders. My concept was to do a reclaimed concept, but at the same time, add a unique touch of classiness. You can walk in with your suit, or your flip-flops. I wanted a place that could be unique in its own way as far as the menu, to provide something for everybody.
We also want to provide a customer service that is lacking Tempe. People are afraid to travel from Scottsdale to Tempe because they’re afraid of the customer service experience. If you come here, you’ll see me bussing tables and working behind the bar. I don’t like to say I’m the owner of the place because I like to hear what people have to say. From what I hear from people is when it comes to customer service, people don’t want to come to Tempe because of that. We try to be personable here and touch the customer and give them something that makes them want to come back.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to open their own restaurant?
Don’t just think it once, think about it quite a bit, and make sure you are ready for it. The restaurant industry is one where you don’t have a life. I’m 33 years old, and I’ve been single because there is nobody who is willing to put that time in to be your other half. It’s very hard. It’s been 10 years, and it’s been 10 years non-stop.
If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to push hard. I’m not saying don’t do it – do it. I’ve done it. I started from nothing and opened up five restaurants and helped open up another two, I went through bankruptcy, and I still chose to do a restaurant. You have to love the industry very, very much and be able to handle everything.
I have friends who used to manage a bunch of restaurants, and they thought because they were the manager of a place and didn’t see the owner around a lot, they assumed they could own a place. I have at least a couple of friends who went from being managers to being owners, and they weren’t aware of all the hard work. You need to work 24/7 for at least two years in the concept you’re going to do to know what’s going on, and you have to micromanage.
You have lots of thefts, you have lots of problems, you’re going to have customers say this, say that, you’re going to have to satisfy everybody. You need to have the financials to support the place. By working 24/7 in the kitchen and not seeing what’s going on in the front of the house, as a chef who’s inspired to open up a restaurant, you’re going to be missing the whole thing.
My advice is to do it, just be aware that the speed bumps are going to be quite a few for a long time. But, at the end of the day, it’s worth it to have a restaurant. I’m very happy with what I have.
With all the time it takes, why are you passionate about the industry?
When I come here, even though I’ve been working 80-100-plus hours a week, I love it, because for me, it’s not a job. Because I socialize a lot, and it’s part of my character to be around people, I get energized. I want to be hands-on not just because I have to, but because I love it. I’m the guy who smiles every day. I believe in the laws of attraction, and when you vibrate positive energy, positive energy comes.
What are your goals?
I’m a very ambitious guy. I came into the United States 11 years ago and became a U.S. citizen five years ago. I would love to see myself succeeding on a family level and a financial level. I consider myself to be an entrepreneur, and I take risks every day. I started a technology startup two years ago with a couple of friends of mine, and we’ve created something I believe is incredible.
I’m the chief marketing officer, and it’s called Ufficient, and I think we’ve created something unique. I’m also working on an import/export company. I love Salut, and I plan to wait a couple more years to make sure this is stable and the feedback is really good, and it becomes a destination before we open up a second one.
What is Ufficient like?
Ufficient is a mobile application that helps business penetrate the cloud and develop direct relationships with consumers and community. Let me try to make this more simple. Ufficient will help you share a request of a problem, need or product you have in mind through texting, and at the same time, you will be able to to attach a video or picture of the problem you might have. Basically, about 60-100 business will have a chance to receive your request instantly throughout the text and be able to create a personal relationship with you. And no, you are not getting 60 phone calls or texts.
Here is an example of the application. A few weeks ago, I needed an electrician to install an outlet on one of the walls in the kitchen that was hard to reach. We tried using Google, and we got 20 results. We called five people, and none were able to come in at the moment. I got frustrated and gave up on it.
Then we used Ufficient. Ufficient allowed us to take a picture of the wall that was hard to reach, type the problem in and request if this can get done the same day. In a matter of 10-15 minutes, we received four to six text responses, and we provided our phone number. The same day, we had three companies coming at Salut checking out our request. At the same time, we got three quotes. That day, we saved $900, plus hours on the phone. We chose the best, and our need was satisfied by next morning.
Ufficient is a marketplace of local services, including lawyers, doctors, electricians, plumbers, thai chi, yoga places, salons, restaurants and more.
One of our potential investors called Ufficient “the Uber of services” that will revolutionize the customer service experience and make your life more efficient.
The way the younger generation is, they don’t want to call anyone. They don’t like picking up the phone and asking for discounts. The app will also provide instant discounts at the user’s request. We’ll also provide Yelp, Foursquare and Google+ reviews so we keep our users satisfied. Ufficient is efficient.
We are planning on going live on iOS very soon, and we are excited.