In Texas, people know if you want great Tex-Mex, Cajun, Greek, steak, or seafood, the best bet is to find a restaurant with the name “Pappas” in the title. Chris Pappas, co-owner and CEO of Pappas Restaurants, Inc., was recently on the Texas A&M University campus to speak to Mays Business School students about the hospitality industry, his successful career, and how to take advantage of opportunity when others see hardship.

Pappas speaking
Chris Pappas, co-owner and CEO of Pappas Restaurants, Inc., shared some of the lessons he has learned during his 40 years in the restaurant business with Mays students.

Pappas and his brother, Harris, opened their first restaurant in 1968. Called Dot Coffee Shop, it lacked the “Pappas” branding which the later restaurants would have. There, Pappas says he learned the business from the ground up, working in the kitchen as well as the office to determine the most efficient way to do things. While his mechanical engineering degree from UT Austin didn’t prepare him for the fast-paced life of a restaurateur, Pappas says that having a degree gave him a leg up on the competition because, at that time, “there were very few people with a college degree working in the restaurant business. It was largely a “mom n’ pop’ business. It wasn’t very sophisticated.”

Soon, they had two coffee shops and two barbecue restaurants, and continued to grow the business as opportunities arose. In the last 15 years, they’ve expanded beyond the borders of Texas. Pappas restaurants can now be found in Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, Denver, Albuquerque, and Cincinnati.

“The one thing that you’re going to find in your business life is that, if you’re positioned at the right place at the right time, and you have certain knowledge that you’ve acquired, you don’t know what opportunities are going to open up at the end of the day,” said Pappas, who stressed to students the need to prepare themselves for such opportunities. His advice? Find a good mentor and learn all you can. Look for a company with good ethics. Don’t worry about how much you’re making, worry about how much you’re learning. And don’t expect to be recognized for everything you do, but know that eventually you will get the notice you deserve.

One opportunity Pappas grasped was the chance to lead the Luby’s chain of cafeteria-style restaurants back into the black financially. In 2001, Pappas became the president and CEO of the publicly traded company. His brother and business partner, Harris, became the COO. Together, they began working to restore the family-friendly chain to the profitable business it had once been. He talked to students about the process of transforming the company financially, including the elimination of $125 million worth of debt in a few short years. Pappas says that Luby’s has now moved beyond its “debt story” and is on to the next chapter—expansion.

Continuing to expand might seem difficult, as Pappas admits his biggest challenge right now is the economy causing his customers to have less discretionary income. But it doesn’t worry him too much. “This is not the first time we’ve had something like this go on,” he says, assuring students that there will be opportunities in times of distress. His solution: diversify. Pappas has recently led Luby’s to take on hospital food, bringing both retail and patient food service to St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, TX. Pappas is steadily expanding his own restaurant chain as well. Pappas’ Restaurants can now be found in two major Houston airports: Houston Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental. Pappas Restaurants, Inc. is headquartered in Houston.

In addition to his roles with Pappas Restaurants Inc. and Luby’s, Pappas serves as the director of the National Restaurant Association. In 2001, he was inducted into the Texas Restaurant Association Hall of Honor. He also serves as a director of the Greater Houston Partnership and is an advisory board member of the Sam Houston Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Pappas serves as an executive committee member of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and an advisory board member of Amegy Bank of Texas. He is involved with the University of Houston’s Conrad Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, where he serves on the dean’s advisory board.