CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Joann Birurakis opened the Best of Crete restaurant 27 years ago in Charleston Town Center, a casual observer might not have given good odds for her success.
The Greek immigrant spoke little English, had no restaurant experience, not much money and was peddling ethnic food not well known to many Charleston diners. Today, patrons patiently stand in line to buy gyro sandwiches, souvlaki platters, stuffed grape leaves and baklava. Her son Michael took over the business seven years ago, but Joann still cooks and helps several days a week.
"I have no recipes," said Joann, who learned to cook as a young girl growing up in Crete, where all girls learned homemaking skills such as cooking, sewing, laundering, weaving and crocheting.
Her husband William's parents immigrated to the United States from Crete and settled near Morgantown, where other family members lived. In 1954, while serving in the Army during the Korean War, he contacted an aunt in Crete to say he was ready to get married.
The aunt introduced him to Joann, whom he met and married within two weeks. She was 18 years old, and moved to the United States without him two weeks after their marriage while he finished his military service.
They lived in Morgantown, where Joann worked in the Star City Glass Factory while William studied chemical engineering at West Virginia University. The first of their four sons was born there. After her husband graduated, his jobs took him and their family to San Diego and Buffalo, N.Y., before a job with Union Carbide brought him to Charleston.
Shortly after they settled in Charleston, William was diagnosed with a chronic illness and was no longer able to work. Joann struggled to support and to raise her young family. She worked as a seamstress at Stone & Thomas, and eventually took her sewing machine on the road to create window treatments, slipcovers and other furnishings in clients' homes.
When organizers for the newly constructed Charleston Town Center put out the call for vendors in their food court, Joann applied for space to open a Greek restaurant.
"They asked for a financial statement. I had $250 in the bank, but I didn't owe anyone money," she said. She secured a loan from United Bank and set up shop.