When Robert E. Lee Elementary School students unloaded the bus and filed into Olympus, a gyro and pizza restaurant in Decherd on Tuesday, what was in store for them was more than just an educational field trip. The school’s third-graders were able to immerse themselves in Greek culture while learning about the ins and outs of a running a small business.

Olympus is owned by Matthew Sfirakis, who moved to Tullahoma with his family in 2009 after an economic crash in his home state of Florida. While he and his family were looking for a fresh start, Sfirakis knew he wanted to keep his Greek traditions alive.

Sfirakis’ parents are originally from Greece. Because of this, Sfirakis said, he was raised to appreciate and enjoy the things that made his culture special.

One aspect he clearly remembers growing up was his family’s involvement in the food industry. He was raised immersed in the Greek cooking culture and learned firsthand some the delicacies his culture held.

Olympus Gyros and Pizza opened three years ago. Since then, Sfirakis has been giving many locals a taste that’s relatively different than some of the things offered in the South. It’s been a success of “Olympus-sized” portions.

Some of the delicacies found at Olympus are gyros, pizzas, pastas, steaks, tzatziki (a cucumber sauce) and saganki (a flaming goat cheese).

At Olympus, all sauces are made from scratch and the Greek tradition lives on through the eatery’s Greek inspired entrées. The restaurant is family-friendly and Sfirakis will make an appearance every now and then to see just how well his customers are enjoying their meal. Sometimes special guests even get to come back to the kitchen to help make a pizza and see all the preparation it takes for a pizza to make it from the kitchen to the table.

“I make sure I get out of the kitchen and speak to my guests,” said Sfirakis. “One of my favorite things to do is get a kid back in the kitchen and have them help me make a pizza or two. It’s great to see how the kids light up when they are able to toss a pizza in the air and see all the steps taken to get it in the oven. If I can make a difference in one kid’s life, that’s what I want to do.”

Making a difference and teaching kids about his Greek culture is what set the stage for Robert E. Lee third-grade students, who are learning about different cultures, to put on their aprons, wash their hands and get cooking on Tuesday morning.

Students came into the restaurant and filled the booths and tables to capacity. Each student sat down and, with a group computer, they were able to look up information about Greek culture, ideology and myths.

While some groups studied the culture, other groups colored pizzas and practiced fractions with their pizza and toppings. When a student wasn’t studying on a computer or making fractions with pizzas, they had the chance to be back in the kitchen tossing handmade dough and picking toppings.

“Kids learn best by being hands-on,” said teacher Tabitha Sehorne. “What better way to learn than through food? Kids love to have their hands on something, and if we can teach them more about culture through the hands-on experience of making a pizza, then that’s what we’ll do. Not only are they learning about a new culture, but they are also sharpening their math skills and learning about a small business.”

The students were able to experience every step in the pizza-making process. They learned how to make the pizza dough, how to flour the dough just right, how to toss the pizza in the air, how to roll the dough into the pizza crust and how to proportion their pizza with just the right amount of sauce and toppings. After the pizza was made, they got to watch the pizza take its final step into the 550-degree oven to bake.

“I really wanted to show the kids a good time when they came into the kitchen,” said Sfirakis. “In the Greek culture there is a lot of excitement when people go out to eat. A lot of that excitement comes from the kitchen because the chefs put so much dedication and passion into the things they cook. Greek food is different than anything you’ve ever tasted before, and I want to share that with everyone.”

Sixty-eight students got to personalize and eat their own handmade pizza topped with fresh ingredients. While they tossed dough, Sfirakis showed them what it was really like in the kitchen of a restaurant.

“I think the kids learned a lot from being back in the kitchen. It gets hot back there with a 550 degree oven! I think they took home a little appreciation about restaurants and the steps it takes to get the food to the table,” he said.

Robert E. Lee is the first school to visit Olympus to learn about the culture and business. Sfirakis said he is more than willing to accept more schools for this hand-on, learning experience.

“We are all given a platform, and the food industry just happens to be mine,” said Sfirakis. “If I can make a difference in someone’s life and give back to the community, then that’s what I want to do.”

At the end of the trip, Sfirakis surprised the kids with a true Greek delicacy, saganki, a flaming cheese appetizer. The cheese, made from goat’s milk, is imported from Greece.  The cheese is brought to the table and set on fire. When the flame diminishes, it can be eaten plain or it can be dipped with bread for a little extra texture.

Olympus is located at 401 E. Main St. in Decherd. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday.

For more information on the restaurant, visit www.olympusgyrosandpizza.com, follow their Facebook page, or call 931-968-5009.

School leaders interested in learning about the Greek culture may contact Sfirakis at 727-515-2511.

Faith Few can be reached by email at ffew@tullahomanews.com.