Two things stand out when you meet Nick Lambright: his passion for Greek food and his forethought in starting a business, which began with a food trailer and now includes a full-scale restaurant.
Last May, Lambright launched Nick’s Gyros as a food trailer serving fresh Greek food created from authentic recipes from Messolonghi, a region in western Greece. The trailer was based at 7540 S. Westnedge Ave., in Portage, but traveled around the greater Kalamazoo area.
“The first day opening the trailer was crazy,” Lambright says. “We were very busy all day and got very positive feedback. It was definitely one of the best days of my life.”
The trailer continued to do well, and Lambright capitalized on that success, opening a 25-seat eatery, Nick’s Gyros & Mediterranean Specialities, at 2727 W. Michigan Ave., in January. The restaurant offers the same Messolonghi fare served at his food trailer, plus authentic Greek desserts, which take more preparation room than the food trailer affords.
Lambright, a Kalamazoo native and resident, says he has always enjoyed Greek food, but his fervor for the ethnic cuisine escalated during his first visit to the Greek islands four years ago. Other trips to the country followed, including lengthy stays. In total, Lambright spent seven months in the Mediterranean country. After enjoying authentic gyros, souvlaki, spanakopita and Greek salads there,
Lambright returned home and realized those foods’ Americanized counterparts no longer held any appeal for him. As an example of the differences, he cites Greek salads. A true Greek salad, he says, incorporates tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and feta cheese but has no lettuce.
Lambright’s passion triggered an idea for the 22-year old: creating a business that introduces Americans to authentic Greek food. To do so meant Lambright would have to learn how to make those dishes. He jumped right in and went to work in a friend’s gyro shop in Messolonghi.
“He taught me everything to know about how to make real Greek gyros,” Lambright says. “We went over how to properly season the meat and how to stack it on the spit. He also gave me his 25-year-old secret recipe before I left.”
Lambright also learned traditional Greek home cooking, taught by another friend’s mother. The language barrier proved tricky at times, Lambright says, but his more-than-willing teacher provided him with pages of recipes.
“Cooking in her kitchen was very special,” he says. “It was all very hands-on and done with lots of attention to the small things. Greeks really love their food, so there is a lot of love that goes into everything they make.”
Back in the U.S. and armed with recipes and cooking knowledge, Lambright embarked on building a food trailer. He had worked in local restaurants and studied business for three years at Western Michigan University. He also worked for his father, David Lambright, owner of Bel-Aire Heating and Air Conditioning in Portage — a Lambright family business for 53 years. The family business had given the younger Lambright much know-how when he and his father constructed the 24-foot-by-8-1/2-foot trailer. It took two and a half months to complete.
“My dad and I designed the whole thing,” Lambright says. “The spit we use is actually a Greek spit from the shop that I learned in.”
The Lambrights designed the trailer so workers can serve out of any side and use two ovens — one for baking and the other for holding. Five employees work inside comfortably, and the space can accommodate six to seven people if needed. The trailer has a large flattop stove inside for making numerous pitas. Lambright says two people can crank out 150 pitas in one hour at lunchtime.
Lambright says he opted to go with a trailer, rather than a food truck, for the additional space a trailer offers. “I have a 12-foot hood in there,” he says, “so I have a full-scale commercial setup. We cook everyone’s food to order.”
And that’s the real star of this operation, the food — especially the gyros, Lambright boasts. In Greece gyros are made with pork — not pre-processed lamb, which is often found in many American versions. Lambright sticks with the Greek tradition of slow cooking his fresh pork every day. He gets it from Galesburg Meat Co. The gyros are served with an authentic tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, onions and French fries, which are served inside the sandwich.
“Our gyros come with fries because that’s how they (the Greeks) do it over there,” he explains. “They put the fries right inside because it’s a sandwich on the go.”
Lambright says Nick’s Gyros regulars often order from the “secret” menu, including an item Lambright calls a “MacDaddy gyro.” This gyro is topped with tzatziki sauce and chef sauce, which is the Greek version of Thousand Island dressing. Lambright’s chef sauce has his own touch — he’s spiced it up to give it some heat.
Lambright says another reason he chose to open a food trailer first was it allowed him to see how well his product would be received. “It was a cheaper entry point than doing just the straight-up restaurant,” he says.
The enthusiastic response to the food he served at the trailer propelled Lambright to open the 1,400-square-foot restaurant. And what will happen to the food trailer? Lambright assures customers that it will once again be roaming about town as soon as weather permits, although he’s not yet sure of the locations.
Through his restaurant and food trailer, Lambright’s mission is to teach Southwest Michiganders about genuine, fresh Greek food.
“It’s a very important thing to (Greeks), their food,” Lambright says. “I’m trying to translate that over here and make it something that people can appreciate — the difference (between) what we’re used to and what it actually is.”