I Am Joplin: George Michalopoulos

Noble columns and graceful stone statues resembling ancient Greek deities create elegant touches to the exterior of this building. Its appearance is unexpected – an oasis of stateliness in a sea of homogeneous commercial buildings.

 

george mythos 1

 

But while it may look like a palace, to one Joplin man, it’s simply home.

 

This home is Mythos, and its owner is George Michalopoulos, a man with boundless energy who spends the majority of his day at this restaurant. While he does have an actual house, along with a wife and two children, to go to at the end of the day, his passion for – and dedication to – his business has expanded his clan, creating a family of employees and customers who find comfort, celebration, and community within the walls of Mythos.

 

George-in-Training

Being a restaurateur is a far cry from George’s youthful dream of being an anesthesiologist, but the restaurant business is in his blood. His parents, Andrew and Vickie Michalopoulos, came from Greece to Missouri in the 1970s, and opened up restaurants. Eventually, they branched out into the full-service hotel industry and purchased the Ramada Inn (now LaQuinta Inn) in Joplin, where George oversaw the restaurant, bar, and guest rooms.

 

When it came time for George’s parents to sell the hotel, he had to figure out what he wanted to do next. With anesthesiology now off the table, he decided to honor his roots and his genuine enthusiasm for the restaurant industry by opening his own establishment. I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m extremely glad that he did.

 

George the Restaurateur

George opened Mythos in 2004 with the help of his wife Jaime, who also hails from a family of restaurateurs. But while everyone else in George’s family had operated steak houses and buffet restaurants, George and Jaime wanted to do something different, something upscale. Something Greek.

 

Over the years, the menu has evolved. Although it remains Greek-influenced with items like the Tour of Mythos (a sample platter of traditional Greek food including gyro meat, pita slices, and spanakopita – which is one of my favorite dishes here), the menu also includes other fare such as steaks (like the Blackberry Filet) and seafood (like the Vermouth Bass). “Joplin’s food tastes are growing,” says George. “The younger generation is seeing a lot more (TV) food shows and getting a lot more of a food education, which is allowing us to mature a lot more quickly than we used to.”

 

Plus, Mythos was using fresh ingredients before using locally sourced ingredients became trendy. “That’s a lot of the Mediterranean culture,” says George. “It was instilled in us as kids that you go to the garden to grab something fresh and it tastes so much better.”

 

george m

George at home, a.k.a. Mythos.

 

The scrumptious meals at Mythos are prepared by Chef Eugene Deal, who gets a special helper in the kitchen on Mondays. That’s when George dons his chef uniform and gets cooking. “It’s good for me to be in the kitchen because the employees see that, ‘Hey, this guy knows what he’s doing,’” says George. “I put orders in with them, I prep with them, I coach them, and I train them.” George believes that his presence in the kitchen has had a positive impact on the employee turnover rate at Mythos, which is low – a unique trait in the fickle restaurant industry. “I think it’s the fact that I’m in here working with them side-by-side, facing the same struggles that they face,” says George. “We’re problem-solving together.”

 

With his hands-on approach to managing the restaurant, it’s no surprise that he’s thrived as the sole owner/operator, despite the fact that he was only 30 when Mythos opened. Add in his incomparable customer recognition skills, which have earned the respect – and business – from customers over the years, and you have a solid recipe for success. He even recognizes people who come in once every year or two, much to their amazement. “I want to make sure that guests are happy and leave better than how they came in,” says George. “I try to make them feel at home.”

 

 

george mythos statue front

 

Practicing the Greek-influenced style of dining is another way that George and his employees make people feel at home at Mythos. “It’s not rushed. It’s very family-oriented. It’s sitting down. It’s talking. It’s enjoying. It’s not getting people in and out in 30 to 40 minutes, then getting the next table in.” While the servers do pick up the pace for the time-crunched lunch crowd, at dinner they move at the pace of the customers.

 

How was this leisurely European dining pace initially received by Joplin diners? “The first couple of years were an adjustment,” George admits. “Now people understand it. We had a table here last week with a 3:30 pm reservation and they were still here at 7 pm.”

 

George the Inventor

When George isn’t cooking or visiting with customers, he’s creating products and systems which make his business – and others in the industry – run more efficiently. Have you ever heard of the Dump Commander? (Go ahead and giggle like a 5th grader at the name – I did). Although it sounds funny, this product has had a serious impact on employees in the restaurant industry, winning the 2016 Kitchen Innovation Award at the National Restaurant Association.

 

What is the Dump Commander? George describes his invention as “a rechargeable unit that you take out to the dumpster, and instead of having to lift trash up over your head, you just hit a button and it dumps it for you.” You can read more about the Dump Commander here.

 

George the Dad

Being an inventor and restaurateur means long hours at Mythos, so George’s friends and family know that, in order to maximize their chances of seeing him, they should stop by the restaurant. Except in summer – that’s when Mythos closes for two weeks so that George can “devote 100%, 24/7” to his kids Andreas, 18, and Jasmine, 16, along with his wife Jaime.

 

George the Joplinite

After working in Joplin for more than two decades, George has come to appreciate living in this town, both for its “relaxed, lower pressure” lifestyle and for its family-friendly environment. “I like the fact that we know a lot of people even though it’s a fairly large-sized town.”

 

So where in Joplin does George take out-of-town visitors when they come to see him (besides Mythos, of course)? “I take our guests to a lot of the local restaurants,” says George. “When I worked in the hotel business, we would always direct guests to local restaurants because you can get a franchise anywhere in the country, but you pick the places that they don’t have in their hometowns and their cities. That way, they can experience something different and unique.”

 

George has been successful offering something different and unique at Mythos, and he does so with inexhaustible enthusiasm. “The time at the restaurant for me does not drag on,” says George. “I spend 12 to 16 hours a day here and I don’t feel like I’ve been here that long.” To George, Mythos isn’t just a workplace: “This is my home.”

 

Mythos is located at 1306 South Range Line Road. To visit its website here; to follow it on Facebook, click here; and if you’d like to read about my experience at Mythos, click here.

 

To read about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.

I Am Joplin: Melodee Colbert-Kean

Back in grade school, my friends and I formed a club called the Busy Bees. Our goal was to perform service projects in the community. While I do remember several afterschool club meetings held at my house, I don’t recall ever doing any community projects. While our intentions were good, we Bees weren’t really that busy.

 

A few decades later, I found the person who I think could have led our club to accomplish great things in the community. She’s Melodee Colbert-Kean, a Queen Bee buzzing with seemingly endless energy and a passion for service. While I can’t transport her back in time to mentor our club, I certainly appreciate all the things that she does for the place I now call home: Joplin.

 

melodee history

Melodee’s career highlights include serving as Joplin’s first African-American mayor, and as President of the National League of Cities. She has met President Obama and traveled the world as a representative of Joplin. With all of these accomplishments under her belt at only age 50, I’d assumed that she’d been interested in civil service most of her life.

 

I was wrong.

 

Serving in Joplin Government

Melodee’s foray into city government began in 2005, when City of Joplin Council Member Jim West held a meeting with members of the black community to see if anyone was interested in running for one of the open council seats. Melodee was convinced that some of the older citizens at the meeting would be interested, but no one volunteered. Recognizing the importance of the black community having a voice at the council, Melodee (somewhat reluctantly) answered the call.

 

Melodee has been the voice of her community since she was elected to the council in 2006, and her term will expire in 2020. It’s a position that she doesn’t take lightly. To prepare for council meetings, she reviews the meeting packet, talks to community members, and drives around the city to to educate herself about the issues to be discussed. “It’s very involved because you’re representing the people,” she says. “You have to be connected to the community.”

 

When citizens approach Melodee with issues, the first thing she asks them is if they are registered voters. To Melodee, this is necessary because “if you’re not voting, we really don’t have a lot of things we can do.” The second thing she asks is for them to provide at least one solution. “It makes people stop and think because it’s easy to complain,” says Melodee. “But, how about a serious solution? Your everyday citizens have some of the best ideas.”

 

When Melodee was elected Mayor of Joplin in 2012, she served as a conduit between Joplin and the rest of the country – and world – during the crucial post-tornado recovery period. Oh, and she happened to do this while raising her youngest daughter Alissa (who’s 11 now), proving once again that she’s a Queen Bee.

 

During this time, Melodee was also highly involved with the National League of Cities, an organization representing 19,000 cities whose leaders strive to make a difference in the places where they live. She served on various committees in the league, ran for a board position, then was encouraged to run for an officer’s seat, which she won. She progressed from Second Vice President, to Vice President, then finally to President in 2015.

 

Through her civil service, Melodee has been able to travel around the world, representing Joplin and offering others the insight she gained from leading our city in the aftermath of a crisis. Through these journeys, she’s learned a lot herself. Her most memorable trip was to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “If you get a chance to visit a culture outside of your own, my goodness! The wealth of knowledge, information, and appreciation you have for people outside of yourself is amazing!”

 

Serving Comfort

While Melodee recognizes the value of visiting other countries and cultures, she understands and honors the importance of the people and traditions of her hometown of Joplin. So much so, that she’s opened a restaurant that serves the kind of food that she grew up with. It’s called ME’s Place (named after her: Melodee Elaine), and it’s a labor of love that she shares with her husband William. “We’re the true mom-and-pop.”

 

melodee mes

ME’s Place is located on Broadway Street, which is off the beaten path as far as the Joplin dining scene goes. But this was a deliberate choice; this was the neighborhood in which Melodee went to school as a child. “To me, it was more of a sense of giving back to the community by opening a business on Broadway,” says Melodee. “Not only was it the original Route 66, but it used to be thriving with businesses, and the majority of them were black businesses because this was the original East Town – the only area that black people could live in at that time. It meant a lot to me to open it here.”

 

Melodee’s passion for preserving the history of Joplin’s East Town is reflected in a small room at ME’s Place, where poster boards covered with newspaper clippings and photos of important figures in the neighborhoods history are displayed.

 

The food served at ME’s Place also reflects the heritage of this Joplin neighborhood, along with a bit of flavor from Louisville, Kentucky, where William is from. His specialty is fork-tender smothered pork chops, which are served on Fridays. He also makes Southern-fried catfish, meatloaf, and sweet tea. “People rave over that tea,” says Melodee.

 

Chicken and dumplings, as well as peach cobbler, are Melodee’s signature dishes. This is the place to come when you want comfort, to taste something like what Grandma used to make. The food here “brings people back,” says Melodee. “You center them back on family, on good feelings. To be able to do that is amazing.”

 

Serving the Community

Believe it or not, but the aforementioned gazillion things that Melodee does aren’t the only ways she serves the community. She’s also been on the boards of several Joplin organizations, including Joplin Metro Credit Union, George Washington Carver National Monument, and Missouri Southern State University. Her experience on these boards has helped her hone her listening skills. “I learned how to be quiet,” she says. I learned that it’s okay to disagree, but be respectful.”

 

She also felt inspired to establish a business called Prayerful Portions. The name came to her in the middle of the night, long before she figured out what she was going to do with it. Eventually this business came to be an umbrella under which she and other members of her family (including her tech guru son) consult with people and small businesses to help them figure out what they are trying to do and, more importantly, why they want to do it.

 

Serving Her Family

It’s obvious that Melodee is passionate about her service to her community, but there’s an unmistakable light that sparkles in her eyes when she talks about the family that she’s created with her husband William, “an all-around good guy,” according to Melodee. The Colbert-Kean clan consists of Melodee’s two adult children, Tyler (a Marine sergeant stationed in Okinawa, Japan), and Typhanee (an educator in Nashville, Tennessee); William’s daughter Amber (a medical student in Tennessee); and the couple’s daughter Alissa (a middle schooler).

 

Serving Her Soul

Melodee and I talked at length about the things that she does to serve the community, but I had one lingering question: What does she do to serve her own soul?

 

Ideally, she likes to visit the beach to unwind, but when she can’t get there, she relaxes by reading, doing puzzles, spending time with her family, and listening to music. “Music is my center. It brings me back to focus, or transports me off somewhere.”

 

In fact, Melodee is so passionate about music that she even DJs at parties, weddings, and other events. “My mom did right when she named me Melodee,” she laughs.

 

Serving the Hive

Now that you have learned about Melodee’s many contributions to the Joplin community, can you see why I think she would have made a great mentor for my club, the Busy Bees? She’s a woman who gets things done and who inspires others to make their community a better place. Like she says,”If you’re going to be someplace, why not make the best of it?”

 

Well put, Queen Bee.

 

ME’s Place is located at 1203 Broadway Street. Click here to follow it on Facebook; click here to read about my experience there.

 

To read about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.

Jorge Leyva: Joplin’s World-Class Artist

It’s a unique sight to see in Joplin: the expansive green lawn in front of Jorge Leyva’s home dotted with a handful of large metal sculptures. Some of them are brightly colored, while others stand gray and raw, awaiting the time when they, too, will be painted into life.

 

leyva red sculpture

Like flowers in a garden, these exquisite sculptures bloom in their own time, in their own way. “I believe in beauty and in beautifying the place where I exist,” says Jorge.

 

And he doesn’t want to keep this beauty to himself. He wants others to see, feel, and experience the art themselves, which is why he’s opened his sculpture garden to the public – for free.

 

leyva blue sculpture

There aren’t many parks or other public spaces in town where people can go to see artistic pieces like fountains and sculptures. But that is beginning to change, and Jorge is playing a big part of the public art movement in Joplin.

 

His mission is to educate his town about “the importance of having something visual where people can participate and feel alive.” He recently dedicated a piece that he created for the Joplin Public Library called “Revering the Phoenix Effect,” which represents how Joplin rose from the dust after the tornado.

 

leyva library

At its dedication ceremony, Jorge watched as a little girl walked up to the sculpture and began playing with one of the houses on it like it was a Lego. “She was encountering herself with art,” says Jorge, and that’s the kind of experience that he hopes everyone who comes across his art will have.

 

A wise – and extremely humble – man, Jorge has worked as an artist for 25 years. Originally from Peru, he came to Missouri to study engineering, but a close friend helped him see that his true talent was expressing himself through art. He graduated from Missouri Southern State University with a BA, from Pittsburg State University with an MA, and then from California College of the Arts with an MFA.

 

He’s artwork has been sold worldwide, and his sculptures are carried by Nuart Gallery in Santa Fe. His work is valuable, but not necessarily affordable. For his private clients, he creates “luxury,” but for those of us living in Joplin, he creates accessibility. We get the chance to see his work at Joplin Public Library, Spiva Center for the Arts, as well as at Jorge’s own home.

 

Spiva-sculpture

Sculpture at Spiva Center for the Arts

 
It’s refreshing to see that an artist of Jorge’s caliber genuinely cares about his hometown and strives to contribute to his community in many ways. Not only does he share his artwork in public spaces, but he also collaborates with local people in finishing his metal sculptures, like by using a local sandblaster/painter who adds the vibrant color to his creations.

 

Visiting Jorge’s sculpture garden is a fulfilling experience, made even more so if you have the chance to interact with the artist himself. Talking to Jorge is like salve for the soul: he’s funny and comforting; charming and insightful. In order to visit, you’ll need to call ahead (417-623-8085): the gates are closed at night and on the weekends unless he’s at home working.

 

While you’re there, ask to see his indoor studio. While I was there, he was working on paintings with “cocoon clouds,” clouds filled with depth that represent metamorphosis.

 

leyva cloud coccoons

Who knew that so much could be represented in clouds?

 

Jorge did.

 

While his work has changed over time, one theme that has remained constant, in both his work and his life, is gratitude – gratitude for his creativity, for the people who interact with his work, and for the people who support it. “Joplin has embraced me beautifully. Nothing is equal to having my own town and its people embrace me so well.”

 

leyva scales of nature

“Weighing in on the Scales of Nature” represents the rebuilding of Joplin after the tornado. “People in Joplin are resilient,” says Jorge. “They are about home.”

 

To visit Jorge Leyva’s sculpture garden at 1305 East Vandalia Street, call 417-623-8085. Click here to see Jorge’s website.

 

To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.