Although he's a different Jim than the restaurant's namesake, Jim Koutrotsios is still Chicago street food personified. A Greek immigrant and war veteran, he started working for possibly Chicago's most iconic street food stand, Jim's Original, in 1983, and oversees the original Maxwell Street store, which moved to its current location on Union Avenue in 2005, and used to supervise the now-closed 95th Street outpost too.
Straightforward and stocky with hair and shirt colors that match Jim's color scheme, Koutrotsios stood outside Jim's Original, squinted in the summer sun, and talked through a Greek accent about the history of "the original Polish sausage stand," what's changed over the years, and the future of Chicago street food.
How did you end up working at Jim's?
I was in Vietnam until 1968. I served in (the) United States Army and then I came out and worked different jobs. I had the misfortune to lose my wife at the age of 39 and because of that fact I had to resign from there and the guy who married their daughter is here and was my friend he requested me to supervise (Jim's) because (it has) an absentee owner, he lives in California. So I came over here in 1983 and have been here since then.
What did you think of Jim's when you first started working here?
I used to come around Jim's to grab something because there was the flea market (outside). They treated me with respect and were very nice to me all these years. I used to go (in the) daytime to the South Side (95th Street location) and I used to come back here and oversee the operation to make sure everything is okay. Since the other place has been taken by the CTA because they're going to build a bus station there, they brought me here and I'm working night times for a few hours and I oversee it.
What has changed at Jim's since you started in 1983?
Back then we were not serving any French fries. Nor ketchup. During the years we go along with the public with what they like to eat and what they like most because sometimes something that we like, maybe the public don't like it. We did some kind of survey—we asked the people what would you like so we introduced a couple other items. Normally, my bosses they like to stay with the same concept all these years.
What other menu items changed besides the French fries?
We introduced the chicken breast (sandwich) a few years back and the fish sandwich. Then we (added) a few different types of pop.
How much have prices changed since 1983?
A lot. The wages have been changing, everything like that. So we've been forced because the industry raised their prices. I remember back then it was a dollar-something for a sandwich. Now it's up to $4.50.
What was it like when you moved to this location in 2005?
We were at 1320 S. Halsted before. And then UIC had to expand, so we went along with their program and they offered us a relocation place, which was here. Actually, we were across the street; they told us we would be there for a year-and-a-half until they built this place, but it took a little longer, about four years. Then they called us back and told us you have a choice to take this place here or Halsted Street. They indicated to me that because I participated in the meeting, they want us to be in this location because of the convenience—the expressway—and plus if we were to take the other place we would be forced to (close earlier) and you would not be able to serve over the window. That would kill the business, so I elected this place here.
How difficult was it to leave the original location? Did you try to fight the city at all?
It was a sentimental thing at that time. Not only us but everybody else because a lot of people, they lost their businesses. They presented an argument but we just knew we had to go with the progress. We did not bring any difficulties for them. We told them as long as you relocate us, that will be fine with us. No matter where we're at, people they know us for the fine food and fine service we provide here and (being open) 24 hours. So we'll be very happy and that's how it happened.
Has the different location affected business?
When you change a location sometimes (that) affects the business. But then people, they get to know you and change the location and then they come back. We advertise and that's how we got people, plus we got some new people—the students for example. You lose some customers from the old ones and you gain some new. I believe if you lose one customer you never replace him, no matter how many new you're going to get.
What is your busiest time of day or night?
All depends on when the people come here—we serve them no matter what time of the day it is. It's like a circle, it goes around. There's certain people that work different hours and they want to grab something fast, so they will come here and it's very convenient for them because certain people only have so much time to eat—like half an hour (or) 45 minutes—so if they go to a restaurant and sit down, they might not be able to eat and it wouldn't be convenient for them to go back on time to their job. Over here, you walk up to the window, tell the guys what you want, and in one or two seconds it will be ready.
Do you have staff that have worked here for a very long time?
We've had people who have worked here more than 30 years. The oldest guy here is me and then Andy (store manager) and then a couple other guys.
What's with the rivalry with Express Grill next door? How did that start?
It was next to us on Halsted Street. They had a place a little farther down and then they moved a little closer. But they have their own recipe (and) we have our own recipe, so we always hope everyone has enough business to stay in business.
I heard that Jim's was the first to serve a Polish sausage in Chicago, but Express Grill has a sign that says they were the first.
I'll be honest with you, I think there's a relationship with the owners. His father-in-law, there's some kind of a relationship and they worked for (Jim's) before, at the other location, and then they tried to open up their own and that's how they started.
How much did a Polish cost in the beginning?
I saw some signs way back and it was close a $1.20 or something. I dug (up a sign) from the basement (that said) 5-cent hamburgers, something like that.
There have been a lot of copycats.
Yes, but we're not affiliated with anybody. We're just our own. A lot of people have opened up and tried to imitate the same concept, but of course they don't have the same product. (Customers) say, "well, they're telling us it's the same." I say "no, they're telling you that so they can sell you the product so they can confuse you."
Have you always used the same product? Have you changed distributors over the years?
We try to have the best quality of everything. We do not change too many of those. Some suppliers in the past, they probably went out of business so we've been forced to take from somebody else. But we make sure the new supplier was as good or better than the previous one. Something that we don't eat, we're not going to sell it. And it has to be sanitary.
Do you see anything ever happening to this location?
No, I cannot see that because—I'm not who negotiates the lease—but I believe we have a long lease, so I don't think so. Let's put it this way: It's needed for the population and the surroundings here and we will accommodate just about everybody.
There have been a lot of changes over the years in Chicago—less hot dog stands, more trendy restaurants. What's the future of Chicago street food?
Fast food is something you can grab right away—it's a tradition now, so it's going to stay. I think that some small fast food operations have a limited amount of people working because the whole family is involved. Sometimes, if you don't make the money to pay the employees, then you're not going to sustain your business. So, hopefully, we keep busy and our main concern is to maintain the business and if we cannot increase it any more, to maintain our people that are working so they don't have to starve because the economy is getting worse and worse.
What else would you like people to know about Jim's Original?
Well, the people, the product and the service talks by itself. You cannot satisfy everybody that you serve. Some people will come in, have a bad day at the house or have a couple of drinks, but everybody who comes here is coming because he's hungry and he knows he's going to get a cheap sandwich and go about his business. We are very happy and would like to thank the people of Chicago and all the surroundings that come here and prefer to shop at our place. And I hope they're happy.