Written by Joe O’Donnell
Photography by Beau Gustafson
In the end, perhaps more than even the fish, it is the people that matter.
“From the first day we made the place welcome, no matter who you are,” says Fish Market owner and Birmingham restaurant icon George Sarris. “Doesn’t matter how much money you have, or where you came from, you are welcome. I am proud of that.”
Sarris is 66 now. “I was helped by so many people in Birmingham. I never felt unwelcome, not once, ever since I arrived here on April 1, 1969.”
He remembers those early years. He and his mother (who passed away a few months ago) washed dishes at Niki’s on 2nd Avenue. “They were doing a big business back then. She would say, ‘George, how long we going to wash dishes.’ I said, ‘Momma people no smarter than us have their own business. We going to do it.’
“By God’s grace in two and a half years, we had our own business. I did not know how to write a menu, but I had friends who helped me. So many people helped me, with my menu, with paying my bills. If I needed to repair something at the restaurant, they would help me find somebody,” Sarris says.
The first restaurant Sarris owned was a hot dog place, Sarris’ Hot Dogs on 18th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues North. From there he moved on to a deli, Sammy’s Deli #1, which he sold to his brother. Then Sammy’s Deli #2. Then Alabama Seafood, a small white restaurant on 21st, not far from the current Fish Market.
“We started with eight seats and then it grew to become 121 seats, then we became The Fish Market and later moved here to this restaurant. We worked that old building to death. I mean we really worked it to death,” Sarris says.
“We will be 35 years as the Fish Market. I hope to be 100 one day like the Bright Star. We have been a part of Birmingham all these years. The community has been good to us and we have been good to the community. It is a huge family from employees to customers.”
Sarris is as fixed in the restaurant business as the north star in the sky. “The restaurant business is wonderful. What other business you going to have where your friends come see you, and before they leave they give you money?” Sarris says.
Still, Sarris says, running a restaurant is a tough business. “It is not for the timid,” he says.
“I have been in this country 49 years and I work harder now than I have ever worked in my life. Business is faster now, customers want and need more.”
Family has always been central to Sarris’ business life. “I have a daughter who works at Yellow Bicycle (Sarris’ catering company). My youngest son is at John Carroll High School. My son Dino works here at Fish Market. They all like to work. We like being around each other, even if we get on each other’s nerves sometimes. I am blessed to be able to work with my kids,” he says.
Sarris’ great-grandfather came to Birmingham for the first time back in 1887. When he made enough money in this country, he would travel back to Greece, for the last time in 1939. The place he returned to was Tsitalia, a small village in the south of the country. “It is a small village, about 140 houses, maybe 400 people. About 98 percent of the people who emigrated from the village moved to Birmingham. If you go to my village now at least 75 houses and the church are built with money that came from Birmingham.”
When Sarris was ready to make his move, the ground between Birmingham and Tsitalia had already been very well-plowed. “I knew the name Birmingham before I knew about New York or Chicago. My uncles were here. My grandfather would tell me about Birmingham. For all I knew Birmingham was the capital of the United States,” Sarris says.
Sarris has seen a tremendous amount of development in the restaurant business in Birmingham. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in restaurants in Birmingham, and it is all due to Frank Stitt. He keeps me on my toes with a commitment to quality. Now we fly fish from Greece; we would never have done that before. Frank Stitt made everybody a couple of notches better. Even if they were just selling hot dogs, they did it better because of him.
People ask Sarris when he is going to retire. “I tell them what I tell my wife. When I die, bring the hearse around to the front of the restaurant. Put my casket right there by the front door, open like in the Greek tradition. If I don’t get up in 30 minutes to go to work, then I must be dead. So take me straight down 6th Avenue to Elmwood. Thank God, my wife puts up with me.” •