Fifty years is a mighty long time in the restaurant business. But 50 years in a single building for an even older establishment is an extraordinary achievement.
The folks at Ted’s Restaurant have been serving lunch cafeteria-style at 328 12th Street South since then-owners Ted and Litsa Sarris first opened the doors to their newly-built eatery on June 11, 1973.
But the restaurant—a traditional Southern meat-and-three enriched with Greek dishes like souvlakia skewers and baked pastisio—actually traces its roots back some 70 years, to the early 1950s and the Old Hickory Restaurant on 18th Street South.
Current owners Tasos and Beba Touloupis are celebrating the anniversary with new Ted’s merchandise including shirts, posters depicting the restaurant’s iconic streetside sign, and coffee mugs—all locally created. They hope Litsa and Mr. Ted, as regulars call him, will stop in during the official celebration week, June 12-17.
Proceeds from dessert sales that week will be donated to three local non-profits—Blanket Fort Hope, which works with child trafficking victims; the East Lake neighborhood group ELI Thrive; and ATeam Ministries, which provides support for families of children who come to Birmingham for medical treatment.
“Over the years we’ve supported charities and given back as much as we can to the community that has given us so much,” Beba says. “I think it’s a responsibility.”
The tale of Ted’s is a fable about family.
Mr. Ted’s first job after emigrating from Greece in 1955 was working for his great-uncle, Jim Sarris, at the Old Hickory. When Jim returned to the family’s home village in Greece in 1960, Mr. Ted bought the business. He rebranded it Ted’s Old Hickory when he moved into the current location.
While recruiting Tasos and Beba to take over the restaurant in 2000, Mr. Ted insisted that both work together, as he and Litsa had done for the previous 40 years. Ted’s would become a second home for the Touloupis’ three children, now young adults.
The Sarrises, now in their 90s, still watch over the Touloupis clan. “They became our family too,” Beba says. “We try to honor them and what they started, and hopefully make them proud.”
Beba is a native of the Bahamas, where she grew up with her Greek-born parents before moving here attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Tasos, from Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, graduated from UAB with a degree in aerospace engineering. But he switched to hospitality management as opportunities dried up in his chosen field.
He was the manager of Hoover Country Club when Mr. Ted made what Tasos calls, “an offer we couldn’t refuse.” After taking over on May 15, 2000, they shortened the restaurant’s name to Ted’s as a tribute.
Tasos likes to joke about the link between his degree and vocation.
“I graduated in 1983 with a bachelor’s of science in aerospace engineering, and right now I’m making collard greens,” Tasos told me in a 2017 oral history interview for the Southern Foodways Alliance. “It takes a rocket scientist to do that, you know.”
Tradition runs deep at Ted’s. In addition to wanting his successors to work together as a couple, Mr. Ted sought someone to carry on the restaurant’s culinary legacy.
“What he wanted was to find a Greek who will appreciate his recipes, who will continue the tradition,” Tasos says in our oral history interview. “He fell in love with me and my attitude of ‘I’m not going to change anything. I might bring a little different technique, but I want the same recipes.’”
The couple added a few veggies to the steam table, freshened some of the wall art, and finally started taking credit and debit cards. The most radical change was adding Saturday brunch in late 2020.
But the regulars still sit at the same table where they’ve always gone, often where they ate as children with their parents and grandparents.
Once “space-age” and now retro, Ted’s street sign features two sweep-arm clocks that have been frozen in time for decades, one at 3:22 and the other at 11:03. Each is correct twice a day, Tasos quips.
More recently, The Touloupises freshened the original murals painted outside the restaurant that read, “Welcome to Ted’s in the (heart symbol) of Alabama since 1973” and “Stop in and see where friendly gets downright fresh.”
Ted’s has played an important role in the history of Birmingham’s restaurants, Beba says.
“Mr. Ted kept the traditional meat-and-three going,” she says. “There aren’t many left with the steamtable and the Southern comfort food. We’re able to maintain that. Hopefully that will continue for another generation.”
Who will comprise that next generation is unclear.
But then again, Tasos and Beba had never imagined owning a restaurant before Mr. Ted offered to sell them his nearly a quarter-century ago. “Tasos was at the country club and I was a social worker,” Beba says. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Things have a way of working out.
“They do, don’t they?” she says. “You just have to have trust.”
Ted’s is open Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; and Saturday 8 a.m.- 2 p.m.