The Gyro Spot
(Published in South Sound Sustainable Living Local Spring 2016 Edition)
I was in the Latin Club in high school, back in the days when live teachers still taught dead languages. All the language clubs at school were having a potluck and everyone was supposed to bring a themed dish from the country whose language you were struggling to learn. An easy chore for the Spanish or the French gang, but not so much for the Latin geeks. I ended up picking a dish that seemed as ancient and Mediterranean as Latin itself: a Greek spinach pie called Spanakopita. It turned out that making this savory pastry involves layering many sheets of paper thin phyllo dough by hand, not a wise choice for a rookie cook’s first time in the kitchen. But it is something Kenny Trobman effortlessly tosses together on a daily basis. Kenny is the owner of the Gyro Spot, an eatery located on Fourth Avenue where the thoroughfare that courses through the heart of Olympia’s downtown is most rich with dining options.
The Gyro Spot is a bright and sunny establishment, painted in the iconic blue and white tones of the Mediterranean and the menu features the same ingredients of that ancient cultural region: lamb, yogurt, chickpeas, lemon, mint, honey and the like. Kenny’s core values in food service are immediately apparent from his menu: quick, inexpensive and satisfying meals served in a casual setting but without skimping on quality. His dishes are authentic, prepared by hand on location and locally sourced. “I don’t use any big food distributors and stick with the little guys”, says Kenny. He relies on a family run regional distributor based in Seattle for much of his Mediterranean ingredients. The menu sports not only gyros but all the delicious Middle Eastern inspired favorites Americans have come to enjoy including falafel, tabbouleh, and baba ganoush as well as some surprises (saffron infused yogurt with honey and pistachio!). The only thing he doesn’t make any more by hand himself is the baklava and dolmas, only because these are not only labor intensive but very popular and he couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Kenny was a born entrepreneur. He told me that when he was a kid his first venture had him washing half the cars in the neighborhood. Still today he can’t control his instincts for opportunity: “I’m always thinking of interesting business concepts” he says with a wistful smile. He had a bead on a small storefront on Capitol Way for years and when he finally got his chance he pounced, opening the “Gyro Express” at a prime second location. When I asked him what he thought of the economy picking up in terms of downtown development he quickly responded, “I’m ecstatic. It has been more than a decade since any new housing has come to the downtown.” He looks forward to more folks creating a real urban village experience that he can be a part of.
Kenny is by all accounts a true survivor. Lasting as a downtown businessman in one form or another during some of the leanest times his generation will ever know has been trying. At the height of the Great Recession, when he lost his first venture downtown, The Clubside Cafe, he told me that he “did not view it as a failure”, just an economic reality when folks had less money for dining out. He didn’t miss a beat though. Soon after closing the Clubside he was hawking gyro’s out of a food truck and this was long before it became the fashion in Portland and Seattle. Back then Kenny told me you had to move the truck a little every 90 days or the city permit wasn’t valid. He worked with the city council and now the regulation is kinder to these mobile vendors. Kenny is not one to just throw his hands up and make excuses. Instead, he rolls up his sleeves and figures a way around what’s in the way of him staying in business.
I asked him what he would say to those who wanted to visit his place but didn’t make a habit of venturing downtown. Kenny confided that he has worked downtown for years and never feared for his safety. He pointed out that “one of the beautiful things about being downtown is that it’s full of mom and pop establishments. You don’t see all the national chain establishments and instead you get independent specialty retail - a little something for everyone –a lot of diversity with a big colorful mix”.
When I asked what advice, he would have for others who want to follow in his footsteps and try their hand at being a small business owner, Kenny took a while before he answered: “The key is if you have a dream you have to go for it, but just know that it’s going to be extremely demanding and you’ve got to be willing to not give up because you have tremendous hurdles to overcome to be successful. Go for it and never give up.” He added, “I’m just always dreaming.”
Clearly the American entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive in our fair city’s downtown thanks to the likes of Kenny Trobman.