Greenwood Soul Mate — Johnny Ballas
What is “soul?” For us, soul is that special something each person brings to their community, forming a colorful tapestry of stories, talents, cultural experiences and more. Greenwood’s tapestry is composed of dozens of unique individuals who are why the city is the epitome of its mantra – “Delta Spirit, Southern Soul”. Their rich stories and deep connections to the region’s food, music, and history make us who we are as a town and a wonderful place to visit. These are Greenwood’s “Soul Mates.”
Today’s Soul Mate is Johnny Ballas, Chef and Owner of The Crystal Grill, a beloved Greenwood restaurant that serves everything from classic country cooking to mouthwatering meringue pies.
My dad started in the 50s, my uncle before him in the 40s and 30s. Back then, there were just a bunch of small diners, about 50 to 60 seats each. There was competition around every corner. My dad separated The Crystal Grill from the rest and made it the place to eat in Greenwood.
Chef Johnny Ballas recounts the history of The Crystal Grill, a dining staple in Greenwood that has grown increasingly popular since its inception. Ballas intimately described the business’ humble, almost piecemeal expansion over time: with the restaurant being so busy that they had to expand from one room to two, then growing into an old hotel next door, until eventually they expanded to more than 200 seats across multiple rooms today. It’s an endearing tale that, in a way, undersells just how beloved The Crystal Grill is to the people of Greenwood and beyond.
“We’re still entertaining a lot of people these days with many visitors following the Blues Trail to see Robert Johnson’s grave and its history. We meet people from all over the world who come through Greenwood just for the blues. That’s the reason why our customers are so diverse. They come through saying they’ve heard about us, then become satisfied customers who tell others all over the world. They say, ‘We made the drive to have your food! We’ve heard about your food, your pies, and we had to come and try it.’”
Ballas was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1952, although his family moved to Greenwood only two weeks after his birth, so he argues that he’s a native even though he “missed two weeks.” The Crystal Grill, owned by his father’s brother-in-law, got Johnny’s father, Mike, to come to Greenwood in the first place. Seeking better work opportunities, Mike found one in The Crystal Grill, which he helped catapult into success.
Johnny took over in the 1970s, soon after The Crystal Grill reached its largest capacity, and the rest is history. People come from all over the South and beyond to try the restaurant’s tasty offerings, but for anyone who still hasn’t had a bite, Ballas had a few things to say to convince them to come to Greenwood.
“Just the variety of food and the quality you’ll get here is something else. We’ve got good prices, and our portions are always generous: few people leave here without takeout. And most importantly, everything’s fresh and cooked from scratch. It separates us from the chain restaurants you find up and down the highway. There aren’t many family restaurants left, and we take great pride in what we do. It’s just different from what you’d get anywhere else. People who have never been here will look at everything we’ve got on the menu and ask, ‘What do I get?’ and the locals will tell them, ‘Anything!’”
What does “soul” mean to Johnny Ballas? For him, it’s what you’ve got in your heart, where what you give out is what you get back.
That’s why the South is such a warm, nice, and hospitable place, where people are treated kindly, talked to, and visited with every day. In other places, you don’t find that as much. Here, we never meet a stranger. Anybody that comes in, we strike up a conversation, asking them how they’re doing, where they’re from, tell them to enjoy their stay and, of course, their food.
One of Ballas’s favorite qualities about Greenwood is how it serves as a beacon for people worldwide. He describes most of his client base as being from out of town and how that’s allowed him to meet interesting people from all walks of life.
It’s amazing to be around that diversity and experience different cultures through the people you talk to. I enjoy relationships here that I wouldn’t have made anywhere else.
Ballas sees many people come and go through Greenwood over the course of many years, and every time he reunites with someone, he mentions how fortunate he is to be in a business where he gets to meet more people than most.
If Johnny Ballas could describe Greenwood in one word, it would be: “Hospitality.”
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