Photo by Madoline Markham.
0912 Taziki's Keith Richards
Taziki’s owner Keith Richards.
One of the best parts of going on vacation is the shift in mindset. Out with the daily grind, taskmaster mentality, in with an anything is possible kind of energy.
But alas, the vacation ends, the office beckons and we shelve our entrepreneurial aspirations once more – at least until the next vacation rolls around.
That’s the difference between Taziki’s founder Keith Richards and the rest of us. When he and his wife, Amy, returned from a three-week holiday across the Greek islands, Keith channeled his newfound passion for the flavors, culture and vibe of Greece into a new restaurant concept.
What they thought was just a touristy adventure across the pond – a trip they took on a shoestring budget thanks to Amy’s perks as a US Airways employee – instead became their American Dream realized.
“We really had no agenda when we landed,” Richards said. “We just rented a moped, drove around and ate at the local gyro stands. We’d grab a bottle of wine, feta cheese and just sit and watch the sunset. We met a really sweet couple who owned a nearby restaurant where we ate three or four different times; we loved what they were doing with the lamb. So the inspiration for everything kind of started coming into play.”
After their return stateside, Keith and Amy started discussing in earnest the possibility of launching their own business. Most importantly, they backed up that talk with action, in the form of extensive research and recipe testing, guided by Amy with assistance from her mom.
Prior to the launch of Taziki’s, Keith had worked for nearly a decade under Frank Stitt as manager of Bottega Café. When Keith shared the Taziki’s plan with his longtime employer, he found resounding support.
“He was really proud of me,” Richards said. “He told me, ‘The way you work, I wouldn’t be surprised if I see 100 Taziki’s.’ When I left, he gave me a really nice European briefcase, a Ghurka, as my going away gift.”
In 1998, Keith and Amy opened their first store at the Colonnade off Highway 280.
“This was before the Mediterranean kick was coming out,” Richards said. “The town was flooded with new concepts and the market was oversaturated with different stores, but we did have something different. We were offering white tablecloth food without the white tablecloth price.”
When researching the name, Keith and Amy poured over the prints from the 30 rolls of film they filled while abroad. When Keith found a picture of his bride pointing to a menu board that read “Tzatziki,” they knew they’d found their name.
“We chopped it up and Americanized the spelling so we rednecks could pronounce it,” he said.
Interesting side note: Each piece of artwork you see in Taziki’s restaurants is a personal shot captured by Keith during the couple’s three-week sojourn.
“The full name was originally Taziki’s Greek Fare, and we actually learned a good lesson there. Here, people knew me, they knew the concept and we were accepted. But when we put our first store in Little Rock, all the Greek people came out of the woodwork, and they were looking for traditional dishes like Moussaka. In Birmingham the ‘Greek Fare’ would work, but outside this area we would need to change it. So I came up with Taziki’s Mediterranean Café.”
By the end of 2011, Taziki’s increased its footprint to 16 stores throughout the Southeast. And while Richards will quickly acknowledge the role he and Amy have played in contributing to the restaurant’s success, he will first tell you it was a blessing from above, one that led to other blessings.
“I think that was God’s plan,” he said candidly. “He made us successful, and He gave us the resources to afford all the processes you have to go through when you cannot have children naturally.”
In 2002, Keith and Amy welcomed twins Oliver and Maggie, now ten years old.
Doubly-blessed, Keith and Amy closed the chapter on pregnancy and young parenthood, continuing to pour their energies into their precious toddlers and growing the Taziki’s business, which had really taken off. By the time the twins were two, Keith was long overdue for a guys-only weekend away, and on Fathers’ Day weekend, he headed down to Emerald Bay with several buddies for a much-needed few days of rest, relaxation and golf.
“At about 7 o’clock, it started getting hazy, I was on the last hole, par 5, on the green in 2, putting for an eagle, about 60 feet away, with fog coming across the green, and then I saw my friends up there as they looked and grabbed something out of the cup,” he recalled. “I was thinking it’s like a coupon for the 19th hole to get a free beer, and I watched as they passed it around and they kept saying to each other, ‘It’s not mine.’”
“My kids’ godfather, one of the buddies on the trip, handed it to me and said, ‘Keith, this has got to be yours.’ It was getting darker by the minute but I could see that the cover of the envelope said ‘OB/GYN’ on it. I opened it and saw two sonograph pictures and it said ‘Happy Father’s Day!’”
Keith assumed this meant Amy had driven down with Oliver and Maggie as a Father’s Day surprise – until he looked up and saw Amy, walking toward him on the golf course nodding her head and saying “Yes, we’re going to have two more.”
“I cried. She cried. It was surreal. Of course then I said, ‘Honey, this is a guy’s trip so you have to go back home,’” Keith quipped. “I didn’t make the eagle putt, but I did make a birdie that day. The twins, seven-year-old Charley and Margaux, were born on my birthday.”
To other would-be entrepreneurs, Keith’s advice is simple:
“Do a lot of research, and follow what you think God’s plan is for you. The restaurant business is the hardest business to get into. If someone wants to get in the business, they can come to work for me first and see how they like it. I get a lot of kids that come in through the culinary schools, and they come in and work for me and find out it’s not what they had planned.”
“You have to know the answer to this question: What are you going to be able to give the people that they are not getting now?”
Taziki’s Friday Special, anyone?