It’s raining in Houston, as usual. The thunderstorms that wreaked havoc throughout the Bayou City around noon have settled into an overcast drizzle, blanketing everything in gray. Tucked away beside the bustling northwest freeway, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen shelters its late lunchers, including one diner who makes every server perk up from the moment he walks in.
At 77, Harris Pappas ’66 is a kind, unassuming man. Always one to play host, he holds the front door open for his guests and a few other patrons before requesting a table. Once seated, a server welcomes him back and announces the day’s special: pan-grilled American red snapper and seared shrimp, served in toasted almond butter with butternut squash.
After Harris and his son, Harris “H.D.” Pappas ’04, both order, our discussion turns toward their alma mater, Texas A&M University. The school has grown significantly since H.D. graduated in 2004 and exponentially since Harris earned dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and accounting in 1967. They reel when I tell them 12,400 freshmen enrolled in fall 2021; when Harris attended, there were less than 11,000 students total. “It’s just amazing what’s happened to it,” Harris says. But the father and son are no strangers to astounding growth.
With more than 100 locations across eight different concepts, Pappas Restaurants is one of the largest family-owned businesses in America. Renowned for their service and food quality across a breadth of cuisines, the restaurants are the living embodiment of a dream more than a century old.
An American Dream
In 1897, Greece was in a tailspin. Centuries of conflict with powerful opponents such as the Ottoman Empire and decades of political unrest had rendered the cradle of Western civilization a bankrupt, infrastructure-deficient, poverty-stricken nation. That year, Harris’ grandfather, the original H.D. Pappas, left the country and joined hundreds of thousands of Greeks searching for a better life in America. Soon after landing at Ellis Island, H.D. traveled to work for his cousin in Alabama and eventually opened a string of restaurants in Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas.
“These were small restaurants, places with about 50, maybe 60 seats,” Harris explained. Not every community received the immigrant restauranteur with open arms. “There were towns back then that did not look friendly upon outsiders.” Nevertheless, he found long-term success opening a storefront outside a train station catering to heavy foot traffic in Dallas, where he remained for the rest of his life.
H.D. had four sons, all of whom he employed as busboys and servers and pushed toward higher education. Harris’ father, Jim, attended The University of Texas before serving in the U.S. Army with his brothers during World War II. Upon returning home, Jim found an opportunity in Houston selling a specialized box that kept beer cold without ice. The product was a hit and, in 1945, he and his brother, Pete, founded Pappas Refrigeration Company, providing both cooling and general kitchen equipment.
The company’s success lured Harris’ two other uncles, George and Tom, to Houston. Their family’s good fortune reflected the city’s, which had rebounded nicely from the war-era lull in trade and was planting seeds for the future with the opening of the Texas Medical Center and the steady expansion of Houston International Airport (now Hobby Airport). Jim purchased the Hogg Building downtown for the company’s headquarters, making full use of the building’s grassy terrace roof in business negotiations. “My dad bet that if he could get someone upstairs, walk them out on that grass and have them look over the city, he could sell them anything,” Harris said.
Try, Try, Try Again
While still in high school, Harris attended Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, Texas, for nearly two years. His family hoped the junior college’s tutors and resources could help Harris’ reading skills, which lagged far behind his peers despite his otherwise solid academic performance. While he still struggled to improve his literacy, the school gave him his first taste of leadership. “It was a military school,” he said, “and one semester, I was put in charge of an entire upper dorm. There I was, 15 years old, and responsible for about 20 other kids.” Harris’ mother saw his comfort in Schreiner’s military environment and offered an unexpected suggestion.
“What about Texas A&M?” she said. Up to that point, the Pappases were a Longhorn family through and through, with Harris’ father, uncles and second brother all heading to Austin for school. Not averse to breaking tradition, Harris applied to Texas A&M sight unseen and, to his surprise, received an acceptance letter. That small shock was nothing compared to the one he received when he arrived in Aggieland in fall 1962 and found no female students in sight.
Despite excelling in his accounting and finance courses, Harris’ reading ills plagued him during his time in College Station. He needed to pass three semesters of English to graduate, and he emphatically failed his first course. Unbeknownst to him, his family and his professors, he had dyslexia, a learning disorder affecting millions of Americans. Today, he would be easily diagnosed and given resources to excel. In that era, however, dyslexia was neither clearly defined nor popularly recognized. “You were just considered dumb,” Harris said.
Thankfully, he was not without allies. He received personal tutelage from English professor Dr. Sidney Cox, who encouraged him to retake his course as many times as needed to earn a passing grade and, in turn, his two degrees. Remembering Cox’s helping hand and the lessons he learned in Aggieland, Harris later pledged gifts toward the Wehner Building’s 2000 expansion, an endowed Mays Business School scholarship and “The Day the Wall Came Down,” a sculpture outside the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum depicting bronze stallions vaulting over remains of the Berlin Wall. He also served as an early member of the College of Education and Human Development’s Advisory Board, lending his leadership perspective to help the young college become a leading state institution.
At Pappadeaux, the main course arrives just as the appetizer plate of fried calamari runs dry. The snapper comes out fresh as promised, served as a great, golden slab with a heaping mound of squash and shrimp. Harris receives visits from staff members throughout the meal, including the general manager. “Is your server treating you alright?” she asks. “Oh, just fine. I only counted 10 mistakes,” he jokes. If the waiter did make an error, only he would have noticed.
Harris first entered the restaurant business after returning home from Vietnam. After graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and served for a year in Thailand before turning down an offer to return stateside to Fort McClellan in Alabama. “I had buddies in Vietnam, so I told the Army that’s where I wanted to go,” Harris said. There, he served another year before a sniper took his friend and fellow Aggie, James Dimock ’66, in the infamous Battle of Hamburger Hill. Shortly after, Harris escorted Dimock’s body back to his mother in Houston.
While he was away, the Pappas family business went through a total overhaul. Hard times had hit the refrigeration industry during Harris’ time at Texas A&M, forcing his father and uncles to sell the Hogg Building and liquidate the company. The elder Pappas clan collected their leftover capital and returned to their restauranteur roots, opening two coffee shops and the first Pappas Bar-B-Q in 1967. Harris arrived in Texas in 1970 and quickly went to work, skipping back and forth across Houston managing all three establishments. “I didn’t know anything about working in a restaurant,” he admitted. But what he lacked in hospitality experience, he made up for in leadership instincts and an eye for detail gained from years of military training and service.
“I remember the first order I gave,” Harris said. “A young lady was mopping the dining room floors, and she would start at one end of the building, then go the other end and finish by mopping the bathrooms. But she did one thing wrong: She never changed the water.” With a gentle word, Harris encouraged her to change the water frequently so that the bathroom would not smell like the restaurant’s pent-up refuse. “This business has never been work for me,” he added. “I’ve been playing my entire career. I have fun helping people develop and love watching some of them leave to run their own businesses. I’m real fortunate.”
Houston, Ready for Takeoff
Today, an eclectic mix of regional and international cuisines distinguishes Houston as a veritable food mecca, a place where you can likely find the best pho, enchiladas and gnocchi you ever tasted served in the same strip mall. This was not the case when the Pappas family first established their franchise. Upon its opening, the original Pappas Bar-B-Q became the preeminent destination for the city’s carnivores. “It was so busy,” Harris said. “When we opened a second location, I could hardly take a break for a year. Finally, I found and trained someone who could take over for me.”
Two years into running his family’s restaurants, Harris was tired. The work was satisfying, but he was frustrated with his father and uncles’ hesitance to grant him a serious stake in the company. Finally, he left the business entirely, interviewed with an exciting up-and-coming cafeteria-style chain called Luby’s, and even accepted a job offer. But it was not long before Harris received a conciliatory call from his uncle offering 10% of Pappas Restaurants in exchange for his return. He accepted the offer with his head held high.
Shortly after, Harris’ brothers, Chris and the late Greg Pappas ’71, joined the enterprise. Chris, like Harris, handled operations management while Greg, fresh off running an independent refrigeration business, channeled his love of architecture into creating a coherent design and atmosphere for each restaurant.
Greg’s eye proved especially valuable in molding the brothers’ first post-barbecue breakout hit, Pappasito’s Cantina. A heavily-themed Tex-Mex place that prospered just as much from its plethora of recycled décor as it did its sizzling fajitas, Pappasito’s was an overwhelming success. At the time, there was nothing like it. “It was the hottest thing in America,” Harris said.
Pappasito’s gave the brothers confidence to experiment further and branch out into new markets. But their real success came after an early misstep. Following their hot streak with more Pappasito’s locations and a new Pappas Seafood House, the brothers bought auctioned artifacts from the recently sold Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses for decorations and opened Circus Restaurant and Bar. To their disappointment, the big top theme almost exclusively attracted children—not exactly a coveted demographic for a cocktail spot. Harris told his brothers, “We’re going to pay this thing off, shut it down afterward and do something different.”
Tricks of the Trade
The brothers brainstormed ideas for Circus’ replacement. Greg spoke up. “What if we introduce flavors from Louisiana?” he asked. That one suggestion snowballed into Pappadeaux, the brothers’ greatest success to this day. “Pappasito’s inspired a lot of little knockoffs after it took off,” Harris said. “Pappadeaux was hard to replicate. It was a bird of a different color.” From Pappadeaux’s triumph, the brothers expanded their empire across the country and across concepts. The Pappas brand now encompasses Mediterranean kitchens, burger joints and the acclaimed Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, which “Texas Monthly” has previously ranked as the Lone Star State’s best steakhouse.
Throughout Pappas Restaurants’ rapid ascent, the family’s keys to success have remained relatively unchanged. First, they cut out every middleman they can. To buy American red snapper like those we enjoyed, most restaurants and grocery stores go through a large distributor like Sysco. Through competitive practices, the Pappas family buys fresh fish directly from the producers. “We pay less and charge less,” Harris said, “which gives us an advantage.” Second, the family does as much as they can in-house. Walk around the Pappas Restaurants headquarters, and you will find a small architecture firm, marketing agency, and printing and packaging center that one employee called “a full-fledged Kinko’s.”
Finally, and most importantly, the family truly invests in their people. In a 2017 video commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original Pappas Bar-B-Q, members of the kitchen staff state how long they have worked for Pappas Restaurants. One says eight years, another 32. A woman remembers working side-by-side with Harris when she started 45 years ago at age 15. These are unheard-of numbers for the high-turnover hospitality market. The secret? “We treat our employees with respect because they’re part of our family,” Harris said. “And we pay them well, too.”
The Ever-Opening Door
At lunch, Harris occasionally addresses the elephant in the Pappadeaux dining room. There used to be a lot more tables, all closer together. The servers used to smile with their teeth; now, they smile with their eyes. It’s September 2021, and for the past year and a half, COVID-19 has ravaged his industry. “It’s been a challenging period for us,” Harris said. The company was forced to furlough thousands of employees but made critical decisions to protect its remaining staff early on.
Pappas Restaurants was among the first to offer curbside pickup. Correctly predicting a meat production crisis, it bought a year’s supply of beef and—against its usual protocol—froze it. “We’re not opening any new restaurants until we know for sure what’s coming next,” Harris says, gravely.
There is quiet for a moment, and then dessert comes. It is an inch-thick brownie as wide as a pizza slice, dripped in caramel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. After a moment, I ask Harris the burning question: “Why are these portions so dang big?” He chuckles and tells a story. “When I was in New York, I went to a deli where the chef cut meat right in front of the window so people casually walking by could see him.
“I asked the chef why he did that, and he said it was the same reason he piled the meat up high on every sandwich even though it cost him more money: It kept the front door opening. The way I see it, people want value. They want to know they got what they paid for. As long as that front door keeps opening and people are happy, I know business is good.”