116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
After 36 years on the Ped Mall, George’s expands alongside its sister restaurants
IOWA CITY — Another Ped Mall favorite is joining the ranks of brick-and-mortar restaurants in downtown Iowa City, after 36 years operating as a food cart.
George’s Best Gyros, owned by Mark Paterno, brought its simple menu indoors for the first time April 1, following in the tracks of sister restaurant and food cart Marco’s Grilled Cheese.
Paterno brings George’s into a permanent location after leasing space in the Northside’s Linn Street, starting in March 2020, to give Marco’s Grilled Cheese a home base and open Marco’s Island, which debuted in February. The move for George’s, which will maintain its food carts, is the third major move for the local restaurateur in three months.
“As soon as we turned on the open sign, people came in,” Paterno said.
What: George’s Best Gyros
Where: 213 Iowa Ave., Iowa City
Hours: 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Phone: (310) 519-6059
Details: Hours will expand soon, as more staff are hired. Food cart operations will continue as the brick-and-mortar location stays open.
The big move for George’s, in the space formerly occupied by Dumpling Darling, which closed in December, is part of a growing Corridor trend of restaurants starting as incubator- or mobile concepts before moving to permanent locations. George’s Best Gyros, purchased from founder George Mihalopoulos in 2006 when it was 22 years old, now finds a home at 213 Iowa Ave., as Paterno marks 22 years since he first started his Marco’s Grilled Cheese food cart.
“George was always the Ford assembly line — gyro, gyro, gyro — whereas we were custom made, 90 to 120 seconds,” said Paterno, explaining the goal to acquire George’s decades ago. “He was always so much faster, kind of the (experienced) cart in the Ped Mall for all those years.”
After 38 years in business, nothing, save for the location and size of the food cart, has changed. Meat still is cut fresh off the cone before being finished on a flat top and folded into warm pita bread with tzatziki sauce, tomatoes and onions. The meat isn’t too greasy, but the signature of a good gyro includes just the right amount of grease.
Although it has earned its place as a consistent, nostalgic late night staple for University of Iowa alumni, Paterno said it keeps its spot with its standout quality among a small number of competitors that often serve prepackaged, pre-sliced meat.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of gyros in Iowa generally,” Paterno said. “But moreover, the places that do make gyros, they’re nothing like these.”
And hitting every demographic, gyro lovers come in all shapes and sizes, he said.
The menu in the small restaurant, with a few humble table tops, remains small to continue the endeavor of efficiency and speed. The only addition is a hot dog.
Paterno said the restaurant, with limited late evening hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, hasn’t been able to take advantage of the full potential its new spot offers, due to labor shortages. As he hires more staff, he hopes to expand hours for daytime weekend service. The challenge has been shared by his other restaurants.
Despite the issues, he said the location and opportunity were likely the best he would see for several more years.
“I think (this transition) is the goal for most of the cart owners now. The financial investment is just night and day,” he said. “The restaurant business has always been tough, but it seems like it’s getting tougher. We can’t raise prices fast enough to reflect our costs, but we’re also in a tough spot — how much can I really charge you for a gyro or grilled cheese?”
For a business he said it “looks easier than it is,” the biggest advantage of the brick and mortar is surviving winter and its significant drop in sales, even for carts that brave the temperatures.
Now that two of his three food carts have permanent home bases, his eyes turn to the third, Paco’s Tacos. That one may have to wait, he said, with a local restaurant scene over saturated with taco options.
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