Phoebe’s BBQ owner Anastasio “Stas” Botsaris is getting out of the restaurant business and getting into drugs.
Drug treatment, that is. Botsaris, a 36-year-old Philly native who escaped his own demons and just celebrated 10 years clean, has accepted a full-time position as outreach coordinator at Avenues Recovery, a Bucks County treatment center. His successful South Street West restaurant and connected food truck and catering outfit are currently up for sale.
He’s never before spoken openly about his descent into addiction, but decided it was time to share. His story, Botsaris hopes, will help shine light on the extent of the city’s growing drug problem and how it affects all walks of life — “There is a stigma about addicts, that they’re junkies and bad people and criminals” — and inspire others who are struggling.
“The numbers on overdoses in Philly this year are frightening. We’re losing people every day,” he said, stressing the importance of getting people on the path to recovery.
“I’m just one little voice, but my experience is that if I could do it, anyone can.”
All in the family
For Botsaris, drugs were an entry to the flashy lifestyle he grew up thirsting after. His late father, George Botsaris, was considered head of the Philly Greek Mafia, and he “grew up seeing things most children don’t see.”
Stas’ older brother Demetri maintains the mob stuff was mostly kept separate from family life
“We just thought he owned a bunch of pizzerias. It was not like the Sopranos,” Demetri explained. “We did know there was a side of him that was very powerful,” he added. “He had like the second-ever Mercedes-Benz in Philly and always had amazing clothes.”
And though George eventually ran into serious legal problems — in 1987, he fled with his family to Greece after being convicted as leader of a massive cocaine ring that stretched from Boston to Philly to NYC — the wiseguy life still beckoned for his youngest son.
“I was always attracted to that lifestyle of organized crime,” Botsaris recalled. “I had no desire to be a lawyer or a doctor. When I grew up I wanted to be a wiseguy.”
In 1998, having worked out a plea deal and returned stateside, Papa George dropped dead of a heart attack at age 47. His sons were just 17 and 18 years old. “Stas didn’t mourn it,” said Demetri. “I think [his addiction] was the result of not mourning, and just self-medicating instead.”
Sure enough, it was right around then, after graduating from high school, that Botsaris started selling and using drugs. First just marijuana, but soon cocaine, pills, powdered heroin, “across the board.” It wasn’t really for the cash as much as the status, he explained.
“I think a lot of people start off with the idea that it’s the money that’s attractive,” he observed, “but once you get into active addiction… Drugs were my currency. For trade, for social acceptability.”
For a long time, Botsaris was able to keep up a respectable presence, even though his nights were spent hustling. As his addiction grew, he began selling more and more, just to keep himself in supply — whatever he could score.
“It came to the point where the drug of choice didn’t matter. The only thing on my mind was finding ways and means to get more.”
That’s what got him into the restaurant biz. He’d been living above Phoebe’s BBQ, which opened at 2214 South St. in 1994 and was run by a fellow Greek named Spiro. “I have a great opportunity for you, kid,” Spiro told him, offering him a chance to buy the spot. “You can clean up your act and go legit.”
Figuring a food business was in line with how his father had operated, Botsaris jumped in. “It was really an act of addiction,” he explained, leaning on the clarity of hindsight. “I was fortunate to be able to purchase the business, but the real intent was to get another one in me.”
The BBQ joint continued operation, but not on a consistent basis. Some days, Stas said, he didn’t open the doors at all, and on others he would leave early — just walk out on a whim — as his dependence on narcotics and opioids got predictably worse. He would binge and not sleep for days, then collapse and wake up hours later in the exact same position with no concept of how he’d gotten there.
“I might have had a place to live, but I was spiritually non-existent,” he said of that time. “But one of the crazy things about the disease of addiction is it will have you think everything’s ok. I had girlfriends and stuff. I was able to convince not just myself but also other people that everything was fine.”
Big brother to the rescue
Not everyone in Botsaris’ life was fully convinced, however.
“He was good at hiding it,” said older brother Demetri, “and we were good at being in denial. But then at some point, we couldn’t help but see, ‘Hey, this is not a normal thing.’”
It took a year for Demetri and his mother to formulate a solution. They researched treatment centers, and after being turned away from many — denied because Botsaris had the appearance of being healthy and well-off — they finally found a place that would accept him: The Malvern Institute. They made arrangements at the Main Line housing center, and Demetri steeled himself for an intervention.
“I would gladly lose any limb or walk in front of any bus to make sure not one hair on his head was touched,” Demetri said. “I couldn’t let this continue.”
Stas will never forget the day his brother came to save him.
He remembered having recently busted an eardrum, and having various ailments that were dragging his body down. He described his apartment as looking like a war zone when Demetri knocked at the door.
“This is not the little brother I know,” the elder brother stated. He took off his glasses and watch and laid them aside, prepping for a potential fight. “Look man, do you like your life right now?” The younger man shook his head. “There are two ways to go,” Demetri continued. “We can go the easy way, or I’m gonna grab you…”
Botsaris started crying. The next day he checked into Malvern, and stayed there 14 days straight.
‘It completely changed my life’
And that was the end of his addiction. “When you have your moment of clarity,” Botsaris remembered, “it completely changes your life. It was either go onto the bitter end — jails, institutions, death — or say ‘fuck it, I can’t live this way.’”
Withdrawal is never easy. For three days, Botsaris didn’t get out of bed as his body fought back, begging for a hit. And then the mental self-flagellation kicked in: Sadness, shame, guilt. Followed by the overarching worry that grips many in recovery: Now what?
“Is this all there is? I’m still young” — he thought to himself (he was 26 years old) — “and what is there to look forward to? Will I ever have fun again?”
But after getting involved with a fellowship, one of the 12-step programs in the region, Stas discovered there was life after drugs.
“Before I knew it, I didn’t even recognize myself,” he said. Instead of his usual swagger, “I was like a sweet kid. I didn’t have to live by some false bravado.” That switch also led him to reconsider what he really valued. Was it money, property, prestige? Or was it helping other people? He decided on the latter, but realized he needed some time to rebuild his own life first. He threw himself back into Phoebe’s BBQ, growing the business by launching a food truck and catering division.
Botsaris was also having fun. “One of the funnest things to have in life is freedom from addiction,” he noted. “To go through your day and then just be able to do whatever you feel like. Dinner with friends. Sit in a coffee shop. Go to house parties down the shore, or visit a museum or go to a music festival.”
Eventually, he was ready to move into helping others.
‘Why are you doing BBQ?’
He found Avenues Recovery via a mutual friend who Botsaris once mentored in recovery. Their roles swapped, the friend began training him on how to administer treatment, and then introduced him to Hudi Alter, Avenues’ founder.
“Once I met Stas — he was never in marketing or communications, he’s a restaurant guy — but there’s something about him,” Alter said. “I was like, why are you doing barbecue? Why aren’t you doing recovery?”
The argument made sense to Botsaris. He researched Avenues’ model, which is what Alter describes as “a hands on realistic recovery environment with a high level of clinical care,” and decided he agreed with the methodology. After a lot of discussion, he signed on as outreach coordinator.
“Stas is a perfect role model for what I want people coming into my program to be,” Alter explained, “and he happens to be really good at dealing with people.”
Botsaris isn’t sad to be selling Phoebe’s, though he values having owned it. “I think it’s time to give it to the next young blood. You’re gonna make money with this restaurant, but you’re gonna have to work,’ he said.
And he is thrilled about his new position.
“We hear a lot about the dilemma, and rarely hear about the solution,” Botsaris said. “I want to show whomever it may be that there’s a life after drugs. That there are people out here staying clean.”
He continued: “I don’t view recovery as a prison sentence, because it’s not. It’s an opportunity to keep going.”