What once started out as a “means to earn a living” from the back of a Pontiac wagon in the mid-50s, has blossomed into a landmark family-owned retail international store, busy deli and restaurant wholesaler over the decades. Nick’s story begins way back in Greece in the early 20s….
Nick Mouris, was born Nicholas Mourtzakis, in Crete in 1920. At the tender age of 12, he left Crete to earn a living in Athens, selling produce in the open markets. World War II meant the loss of everything: two brothers killed by Nazis and another murdered by Greek communists. Destitute at the age of 31 in 1951, Nick, his wife, and two young children, Lola and Philip, sailed to America. Their $700 passage covered by his sponsor, and the farmer for whom he would work in Monet, Missouri. After a miserable ten months isolated in the Midwest far from any Greek-speaking people or Orthodox church, Mouris contacted a friend he had met on the ship, Father Theodosios Sideris, in Richmond, VA. Father Sideris sent him $300 for transportation to Richmond and a new, permanent home.
Although life in Richmond was not always easy, having a Greek community made it “home” for the lonely immigrants. Mouris started work at the old Bond Bakery. He supplemented his eight hours in the mixing room with another four selling produce from the back of a station wagon, relying on his knowledge gained as a teenager in Greece. An early customer, Julian’s Restaurant owner Peter Poli, later described Mouris as “He was hustling, just like everybody else. Nick was doing everything to make a living. He had two small children to raise. He worked 18 hours a day. They don’t make ‘em tough like that anymore.”
In 1958, Nicholas Mourtzakis became an American citizen… Nick Mouris. He remarried, had another son, Manuel. His second wife, Mary, became a partner in the business. After 12 years with the bakery, Mouris opened a small store on North Sixth Street with five or six bushels of produce. He soon added a truck to pick up produce in Baltimore. In 1967 he expanded to international products like cheeses and olive oil. He later moved to East Marshall Street due to city expansion. During all these years, Philip and Manuel helped with the business whenever they were out of school. Several years later, Nick expanded to the current building at 400 W. Broad street. There were some tough years, such as when his trusting nature set the business back by dealing with a shady contractor who bilked him for far more than originally quoted renovations, and, took 4 months longer than estimated. Nick’s lost $50,000 and an excellent credit rating that year. This major set-back also caused his son, Manuel, to leave college in his last year and enter the business full time. He took over the ordering, financials, and other things that due to Nick’s lack of formal education, “used to kill him,” according to his oldest son, Philip, a full-time school teacher and coach (who always helped at the store on weekends).
Toney Wiley has been “soup master” since Nick passed away in 1998. He takes pride knowing the only thing that comes out of a can in the popular lentil soup is tomato paste. The vegetarian soup contains fresh tomatoes, olive oil, celery, onions, carrots, green peppers, garlic, bay leaves, crushed red pepper, and lentils… the same recipe concocted by Nick and perfected by his protégé over many, many years. Toney and Philip, along with long-time employee, Harry Kipreos, help maintain the neat deli the way Nick did. Fans enjoy the soup, baklava, Greek salads, huge N.Y.-styled sandwiches, and imported products.
The sharp focus on authenticity and superior products is what draws customers to this small business from Williamsburg, Norfolk, Charlottesville and beyond. European and Middle eastern immigrants, along with food connoisseurs, make the trip to purchase hard-to- find products from Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and of course, Greece. In addition to members of these communities, the store also serves residential neighbors, area laborers, VCU students and downtown office workers. On many Saturdays, long-time Richmond resident, Henry Berling, can be found stocking up on supplies, and enjoying sandwiches with his sons and grandchildren, just like his daddy did decades ago when “Mr. Nick” was around. You might even find Dr. Nick Tarasidis singing a greek melody and discussing politics, like the old-timers did!
Manuel remodeled in 2000 to maintain the “Mediterranean atmosphere” … from the arched doorways painted the color of the Aegean sea, to the large black and white diamond tiled floors, use of the old-fashioned deli paper and vats of almost any type of olives. An RTD reporter/customer once commented, “Although I’ve never been, I just know this place is alive with the music of Greece, (it’s) the real thing.”
Although the Greek Festival only comes once a year, folks can get their “food fix” six days a week at Nick’s International Market!