Athens Pizza celebrates 50 years

Sandy Papadopoulos looks back on his family’s legacy as he prepares for a Saturday celebration

Tuesday October 18, 2016 05:00 pm EDT

Photo credit:
“When we first came here, everyone was like, oh, you’re from Athens, Georgia? I was like, dude, you gotta be kidding me,” says Sandy Papadopoulos, son of John and Asie Papadopoulos, the founders of North Decatur staple Athens Pizza. On Saturday, the family owned and operated Greek pizzeria will celebrate 40 years in Atlanta and 50 years in existence with BOGO pizzas, live Greek music, and Greek beer and wine tastings.

The Papadopoulos family moved from Greece (yes, that Athens) to the little town of Southbridge, Massachusetts, back in 1963. John worked the graveyard shift at a glasses factory and spent his days tossing dough at a local pizza shop. In 1965, when the shop’s owner retired, John bought his New England-style pizza recipe for $1,000 — a pretty significant sum in those days — and a year later opened the first Athens Pizza in the tiny town of Putnam, Connecticut. Ten-inch pies sold for $1.25 each.

Ten years later, with business booming and several more locations dotted across New England, John decided he was ready for retirement. He sold his restaurants and moved his family back to Greece. “For six months, Athens Pizza was nonexistent,” says Sandy. “Then, my father got bored.”

By February of 1977, the Papadopouloses were back. But Connecticut in the dead of winter is a pretty harsh transition from balmy Athens, so they went to visit an uncle in Atlanta. “It was 70 degrees in February,” recalls Sandy. “My father said, ‘we’re moving here!’” And so they did. By July, in a small North Decatur strip mall, Athens Pizza was born again.

“If it wasn’t for two groups of people — square dancers and Atlanta’s loyal Greek community — I don’t think we would have made it,” says Sandy. He tells of one night after a particularly slow first week, when a troupe of local square dancers, fresh from the floor, arrived at the restaurant’s doorstep just as his father was preparing to lock up: “He opened the door and said come on in!” From then on, Athens Pizza stayed open late on weekends, becoming Atlanta’s unofficial post-square dancing hangout.

Several expansions later, as the ‘80s drew to a close, the Papadopouloses acquired a piece of land just steps from their restaurant and decided to build a brand new space. One night in 1991, they moved everything out of the old location and into the new one. “We didn’t miss a day of business,” Sandy recalls. “I will never forget it.”

In 2002, John passed away and Sandy took over the shop, determined to keep his father’s legacy alive. “It hasn’t changed at all,” he says with a smile. “It’s still kitschy as shit. And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Athens Pizza still serves up that same treasured recipe John bought back in 1965, along with gyros, salads, pastas, and their famous chicken soup, said to cure any ailment. Sandy soon plans to open a new concept called KARV, with details to come at Saturday’s celebration.

Meanwhile, John’s wife Asie, known to loyal customers as Mama P, remains the lynchpin of the whole operation. She’s still in the restaurant daily, overflowing with grandmotherly hospitality and charm. “You’re too skinny!” she shouts as I shake her hand. “Eat some pizza!”

Athens Pizza 50th Anniversary Celebration. Free. Sat., Oct. 22. noon-8 p.m.

1341 Clairmont Road, Decatur. 404-636-1100. athenspizzaatlanta.com.