Alex “Zorba” Pappas sits outside on a bench of his son’s restaurant, “Shells and Sauce,” with a half-burned cigarette in his right hand. There is a large gold ring with a dark jewel on his middle finger as he reaches out his curled left hand in a “godfather” like manner. A patron of Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood restaurant grabs his left hand and Pappas peeks from underneath his black fedora and replies with a drone “Alex,” after the patron introduces himself.
“Zorba,” as Pappas is affectionately called by his close friends is a Greek name that directly translates to “Live each day.” Pappas acquired this nickname by his grandmother or “ya ya” as he called her when he was a young boy. According to Pappas’s family, friends and employees, that is what he does, lives each day. Pappas’s son George who is the owner or “president” (as the family likes for him to be titled) of Shells and Sauce has a very close relationship with his father. There houses are next to each other much like the way Pappas grew up in Greece.
Pappas was born in Kalamata, Greece, in the 1940s. His family lived in a small village considered to be part of the city of Kalamata. Kalamata (which means “pretty eyes” in Greek) is one of the largest and most important port cities along the Mediterranean Sea. The city is known around the world for its olives and olive oil as well. Pappas’s family owned small businesses and did farming in the region.
“I helped with the family business.” Pappas said about his childhood.
“I came for the American dream,” Pappas said with a coy grin. He is a man of few words, at least to people he doesn’t know very well. Pappas keeps his cards very close to his chest and something about the confidence he exudes shows that nothing is going to change him.
Although Pappas seems to have a slight distrust of people at all times, there is something very likeable and endearing about his personality. As a small group of people looked at a computer screen in George’s office at Shells and Sauce, Pappas went to Google Earth and typed in an address that was very hard to decipher. The image zoomed in near the Mediterranean Sea, then to Kalamata, Greece, and finally to a small village there.
“I grew up in that barn,” Pappas said.
There was a snicker and a faint laugh amongst the group. It was only George laughing at first. After a brief moment, the whole group started laughing. It comforted Pappas to join in on the laughter.
“He’s always joking around,” George said with a full grin and a blushing face. “But, that is the village that he and my family grew up in and our family still lives there to this day.”
The other laughter came from an employee named Brady Spagnola who has worked for Shells and Sauce since they opened in 2007. Later in the evening Spagnola commented about how Pappas likes to joke with the employees and sometimes the patrons.
“He likes to mess with people for his own kicks sometimes.” Spagnola said.
“You know he’s in the Greek Mafia don’t you?” Spagnola said this with a wink and a smile. “He owns this whole block of buildings.”
Seven buildings with businesses between Elizabeth and Clayton streets on 12th Avenue can be counted. There is a Chinese restaurant named Peter’s, a Greek restaurant named Chef Zorba’s (a separate Greek family runs the restaurant aside from Mr. Pappas now), a grocery store and market named 12th Avenue Market (Pappas owned), a small laundromat (Pappas owned also), an Ace Hardware, a real estate office and a Dazbog coffee shop.
“Will a liquor store will ever go in around here?” A patron of Shells and Sauce asked the bartender named Andrew, Andrew looked at the patron and leaned forward.
“I’m hearing that he’s going to put it in the building where the real estate office is.” Andrew whispered.
An article by Westword reporter Alan Prendergrast named “Mean Spirits” that is from Feb. 29, 1996 shed some light on Pappas trying to get a liquor store on the neighborhood block. The article goes into detail about how Pappas applied for a liquor license three times within one year and was denied all three times. The law at the time stated that if a person is denied a liquor license for an address, they have to wait two years to apply at that address again. So, Pappas simply used another one of the addresses of the buildings that he owns on the block.
The Congress Park neighborhood caught wind of the situation along with some Denver lawmakers. According to Prendergrast’s article, a group of about 1,000 people called a community meeting to discuss whether the liquor license should be approved, most of them being against it. The following quote was taken from Prendergrast’s article:
“As the meeting wore on, Ferrell says, ‘Pappas got pretty red-faced and was screaming and pounding the table.’ Neighbor Paul Jackson said Pappas ‘puffed all up’ at the suggestion that if he persisted in his application, some residents might picket his restaurant. He said, ‘Bring them down. I’ll get my shotgun and shoot them,’ Jackson says. Then his lawyer said he was just posturing. It was a nonproductive meeting.”
It appears that Pappas is a very determined man. No matter what anyone’s personal opinion of Pappas is, it cannot be denied that he is a successful Greek immigrant businessman.
By day Pappas is keeping check on all of his businesses and he’s at Shells and Sauce every dinner (except Monday when they are closed.) Pappas will usually be the one to meet you at the door to seat your reservation or try to seat you as fast as possible at the bar or another table if he can. When he isn’t at the door, he is helping expedite food at the window from the kitchen to the dining room or circling the dining room assisting the tables as needed. Occasionally he will joke with the kids and adults alike.
Pappas moves around Shells and Sauce at what appears to be a languid pace, but don’t be fooled, employees say he enjoys the appearance of being as slow and as dumb as a fox. They say that Pappas is quick-witted, whether he speaks in Greek or in a heavy accented English.
He will be the man wearing one of his many fedoras that he dons if you are looking for him at Shells and Sauce or at any other of his properties.