They work long hours, they rarely take a day off, and their businesses are usually true reflections of their personalities.
I have met many interesting – OK, lets just go ahead and call them quirky – restaurant owners over the years, and it is their smiles, jokes, boisterous laughs or just their penchant for perfectionism that are big parts of any meal at their restaurants.
So I wanted to share with you some of the most memorable restaurant characters I have met, tell you what I find so interesting about them and let them tell you a little about how they ended up doing what they are doing.
Manager, River Bend Pizza, 7410 St. Joe Road
With his handlebar moustache and colorful wardrobe, Alex Demetroff was sort of the inspiration for this story. A classic second-generation restaurateur, he is the son of Lexy and Caroline Demetroff, who operated Alexanders on East State Boulevard and Beacon Street starting in 1956 and went on to open 13 other Lexys pizzerias. Demetroff makes some tasty pies with his wife, Denise, the company president, and daughter Lexie, the assistant manager, at River Bend Pizza now.
The former filling station is full of old menus, photos and clippings telling his familys story, and there are also a lot of Alexs goofy knickknacks scattered about. He always has something on his mind and isnt shy about sharing it. If you really want to get him ranting, ask him why he doesnt offer breadsticks.
Years in the business: Basically a lifetime, but 23 years at current location.
Where did you learn your craft, and what was your biggest influence? Obviously from my mom and dad. I rolled my first dough ball when I was 2 years old. At 4, I was making sandwiches and was put on a regular schedule at 12. I can remember watching my dad create dishes and experiment with different things and my mom being the taster and cleaner-upper. Now Denise and Lexie get to do the same thing.
Favorite dish at restaurant: I love good old simple cheese pizza.
Favorite food: My wifes homemade cookies and my moms chicken and rice and stuffed peppers.
Least favorite food: Grease-soaked breadsticks.
Favorite eatery: Im at my place six nights a week, so I dont go out too often. On my day off, we usually eat at my daughter and son-in-laws or during the summer have a family dinner at our lake cottage. When we do eat at a restaurant, I prefer local independents to chain places. Chain restaurants mediocrity drives me crazy.
Pet peeve: My biggest pet peeve is that people in general will accept food that is at best mediocre. If it is delivered to their house and is dirt cheap, they dont care what it tastes like. I am also dismayed at the general dumbing down of young peoples taste buds.
Motto/best advice: From my dad, We wont make a lot of money, just a lot of friends. From my mom, If youve got time to lean, youve got time to clean. From my wife, Youre the worst businessman in the world. My own outlook on business and life, It could be worse.
Owner of Liberty Diner, 2929 Goshen Road, and Liberty Diner II, 1040 Coliseum Blvd N.
George Smyrniotis is the consummate professional. You dont notice him because of his flamboyant personality, but you do notice how smooth things are running when he is darting in and out of the kitchen and from table to table. If he or his wife, Elena, whose elegance is the perfect yang to Georges businesslike yin, are at the diner, you probably wont want or need for anything.
Years in the business: 30; 10 at current location
Where did you learn your craft, and what was your biggest influence? My passion for cooking and great food began a long time ago, during my childhood in a small village of the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. My influence to this day is my grandmother Sophia, whose simple – yet elegant and delicious – cooking remains my main inspiration.
Favorite dish at restaurant: I like the Greek salad – a great classic, which I often like to prepare myself. I also love the Avgolemono soup (with lemon, chicken and rice) and its zesty, truly Mediterranean flavor. And of course, the succulent Greek Chicken takes the prize.
Favorite food: I am a great admirer of Mediterranean cuisine.
Favorite eatery: My wife and I really like to have dinner at Joseph Decuis.
Least favorite food: I do not have much appreciation for fast food – that is, food which was not prepared with enough attention, care and concern for quality. In a way, it is not a specific food that I dislike as much as the low standard of its preparation.
Pet peeve: Solicitors who bombard the restaurant with phone calls during busy lunch hours tend to put me on edge.
Motto/best advice: I tend to be a choosy customer, and I strongly believe in creating conditions in my restaurant so as to keep me content if I were the client. This means paying great attention to detail, insisting on friendly service, an extensive menu and my own perpetual presence to overlook the whole process.
Manager (with wife Ana) of Friends, 1824 Dupont Road, and Friends Too, 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd.
If someone was casting a movie and needed the quintessential Greek restaurant owner, auditions would end as soon as Nikos Hatzigeorgiou walked through the door.
His bellowing, heavily accented voice and hearty laugh add charm to the atmosphere at Friends and Friends Too. And no one can provide an Opa! quite like he does when lighting the saganaki on fire.
Personality aside, Nikos is also a fantastic host, and when he or his wife, Ana, is on hand, you will be taken care of.
Years in the business: 3
Where did you learn your craft, and what was your biggest influence? My mother was my major influence along with many chefs in various restaurants in Greece.
Favorite dish at restaurant now: Lamb souvlaki
Favorite food: Lamb or baby goat on a spit and always a side of saganaki or feta cheese and crusty bread.
Favorite eatery you frequent: If I ever get a day off, I like to take the family to the Greek Islands Restaurant in Chicago.
Least favorite foods: Cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Biggest pet peeve: Usually nothing, but at this point road construction.
Motto/best advice: You have to love people, love what you do and be willing to put in the hours the business requires.
Bentley and Sandra Dillinger
Head chef and owner, Sandra Ds, 1330 S Main St., Auburn
While she is taking reservations, checking the books and keeping the front of the house in order, he is back in the kitchen belting out classic rock tunes as he stirs a pot of sauce. Bentley and Sandra Dillinger are quite a pair.
Sandra is a great hostess – warm, friendly and attentive – and Bentley is a skillful chef whose Italian fare just seems to get better and better. But what makes him stick out are his customary trips around the dining room to check on customers and his penchant for grabbing his guitar when things are slow and serenading his customers, especially on a special occasion.
Years in business: 9
Where did you learn your craft, and what was your biggest influence? Bentley – Ivy Tech culinary arts degree; influence, Chef Clif Jackson, Greenhurst Country Club. Sandra – International Business College; influence, My parents, who taught me the art of fine cuisine, and my grandmother and grandfather Egli from Switzerland for all of their family recipes. We have also influenced each other with our diversification of knowledge in the field.
Favorite dish at restaurant now: Bentley – Pollo Carbonara; Sandra – Seafood lasagna
Favorite food: Bentley – Pizza; Sandra – Prime rib
Least favorite food: Bentley – Spicy Mexican; Sandra – Beets
Pet peeve: Bentley – People in this industry that serve poor-quality food; Sandra – Taxes.
Motto/best advice: Bentley – Long hours and hard work eventually pays off; Sandra – Creativity generates profit.
Owner (with husband Sam) of Spyros Pancake House, 4410 Bluffton Road and 6455 W. Jefferson Blvd.
She is the hardest-working woman in the breakfast business. Well, at least that is what many readers have e-mailed to say about Jean Giatras. Regulars of the pancake houses rave about how comfortable she and her husband, Sam, make customers feel, and they rave even more about how hard she works.
Jean does it all, from seating to serving to expediting orders in the kitchen when things are backed up. And she does it all with a smile, no matter how long or how rough her day has been.
Years in the business: 30 (since working at about age 11 in my fathers restaurant); 6 years at current locations
Where did you learn your craft, and what was your biggest influence? Definitely my father, Mike Lika, from growing up in his restaurant, Likas at 43rd and Western Avenue in Chicago, and just being around the restaurant business all my life. My fathers talent was incredible, and I definitely inherited his work ethic as well.
Favorite dish at restaurant now: Spinach and feta frittata (I love cheese and potatoes!)
Favorite food: Great Village Greek salad (has to be home-grown tomatoes) and a great loaf of rustic bread with olive oil from my husbands village in Greece, Agios Kirikos (St. Cary), which we always have on hand at home.
Favorite eateries: Biaggis, Cebollas and House of Greens
Biggest pet peeve: Condiment bottles that are not clean at any restaurant.
Motto/best advice: In order to be successful in the restaurant business you really have to live it. What is a 9-to-5 job? Get ready to work hard and for long hours.