- Mathew Silver
During the day Sammy’s Souvlaki sits quietly, tucked away beside the train tracks where they intersect with Oxford Street. But at night, like the neon sign that hangs over the front window, the food truck comes alive. A friendly face pokes through the window to greet partyers taking in the London nightlife; his name is Ike.
Born Bicas Achilles, “Ike” came to Canada in March of 1978 looking for a better life, now, he finds himself in London Ont. serving up late night eats to hungry students. His customers know him for his charismatic personality and continuous generosity, often handing out free soup and beverages to patrons bearing the cold of winter. But there is a bigger story behind Ike, one that goes deeper than just the friendly, grey-haired man in the window.
The heat emanating from the stove inside the food truck offers a welcome escape from the harsh cold of the Canadian winter. The air inside hangs thick with the scent of assorted meats as they sizzle on the range, and fresh-cut fries bubble in a pool of grease. Ike stands over the deep fryer, reminiscing on his childhood connection to food in his heavy Greek accent.
“My mother taught me to cook when I was four or five. It is kind of engrained in the culture of Greece. She would take me in the kitchen and force me to learn different recipes.”
To this day, Ike incorporates his mother’s recipes in a variety of Greek delicacies. From Greek salad to souvlaki, fresh-cut fries to gyro, Ike has cornered the desires of the club-crawlers that stand outside his window night after night.
But it’s a different type of recipe – his recipe for success – that keeps Sammy’s Souvlaki thriving in a competitive late-night market.
“My recipe for success comes from a lot of things my mother taught me growing up. You have to have fresh food and take the time to meet the customers. My mother was kind to everyone, even people she didn’t like. She always stressed the importance of treating everyone with respect.”
London local Jessica Parsons has taken notice of these principles.
“He is just a great guy – (and he is) always smiling…. he takes the time to learn everyone’s name and even goes as far to welcome them into the truck to hang out,” says Parson.
And according to Ike, the feeling is mutual. “I love everyone and I try to treat them equal. Sometimes I think of my customers as my own kids.”
Ike sits against the counter, arms crossed over his faded grey T-shirt. His cream white hair poofs out with a Kramer-like charisma, and his crooked circular glasses only add to his charm. But if you look deep enough, certain characteristics begin to show his age. His skin is old and weathered, and the crow’s feet that sit beside his eyes run deep – the byproduct of a life lived on few dollars and even fewer hours of sleep.
Ike has owned the truck for over a decade, and his commitment to his customers has afforded him a respectable lifestyle. One he thought would have never been possible considering his modest upbringing.
“When I was younger (in Greece) I dreamed of growing up and having a family. We never had much, but I never knew the difference because everyone was poor. I keep these memories to remind myself how lucky I am now.”
Along with those memories, the 63-year old hasn’t been able to shake his Grecian accent since arriving in Canada. And although his English has steadily improved, he admits it was the biggest obstacle for him to overcome.
“When I first arrived, the only person I knew here was my brother, who also owned a food truck. So for me trying to start a business with English as my second language was very difficult. The administrative stuff, filling out papers, getting residency, things like that.”
Eventually he found himself in the truck that now stands as Sammy’s Souvlaki, but according to him, things weren’t so smooth from the start.
“At the start it was very hard. Starting a business has a lot of challenges, and the competition in this neighbourhood is big. I’m happy I was able to build one of the better businesses.”
For Ike, the city of Larissa, Greece never seems farther away than in the depths of the Canadian winter. All but the blue trim that decorates the edges of the food truck disappears when the snow falls heavy in the heart of winter. The scene is livened only by the rumbling of the cargo train as it passes on the railroad tracks. Cold and isolated, the weather takes a toll on Ike’s work.
“The weather really slows down business for four months of the year. Some nights I don’t even bother opening up. It is very boring working here if nobody comes by.”
But on those desolate nights, it is Ike’s ability to incorporate aspects of his past life into his business that makes him feel that much closer to home.
“It is important for me to keep Greece close to my heart. It is a big, proud, part of my identity and I like being able to share the culture,” says Ike.
Looking forward he hopes to put the food truck business behind him and explore new cultures.
“When I can afford it, I want to close down my shop and travel with my wife. I have visited the mountains in Alberta, and I would love to go backpacking in South America before I get too old… the problem is that I would miss all the nice people from London.”
Sophie Lalani, a fourth-year student at Western University admits it just wouldn’t be the same without Ike.
“Ike is the best. He consistently has the best food and when you want some good “drunk-food” he is always open late at night. He definitely gives the area a sense of community. He is funny too, which makes it always fun to see him,” says Lalani.
Ike’s sense of humor serves as another one of his trademarks, and it isn’t lost when he reflects on what caused him to come to Canada all those years ago.
“Stupidity…” Ike says with a smile, “Stupidity- and a dream of making it in a beautiful country like Canada. I guess it all worked out.”