My father and life long business partner just celebrated his 90th birthday. Anyone who knows Tony would say, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’. He hardly acts his age; my mother recently told him she hoped he would grow up someday.
Last fall on a road trip up to Owls Head I listened to a podcast about how people got into the food business, but more specifically how Greeks got into the trade. It got me wondering where our ‘food’ roots started. How we ended up here at The Good Table. My parents and I had a few days together so we spent time tracing my father’s work path, it’s converged with my mother’s, with my own and lastly with his granddaughter Jessica’s.
To say Tony is a hustler would be an understatement as his work history reveals. Not a Ponzi scheme hustler but a hard working man with an idea, vision, fearlessness, tenacity and the ability to get up after a fall. It all began when as child Tony shined shoes for his father’s shoe store. His father Peter Kostopoulos an immigrant, planted the seed of entrepreneurship for Tony and future generations.
At 21, his brother Alex owned a line of canteen trucks, delivering coffee, donuts, hot and cold sandwiches to factory workers, office workers, etc. Tony drove a truck for a year, and there was beginnings of the food trade for him. He then opened a breakfast lunch counter at Boston Fruit and Vegetable Terminal where he single handedly served over 500 cups of coffee daily, along with breakfast, pastries, sandwiches to truckers from all over the country. He claims this where he learned his hustle. I was just a little one when he worked from dawn until noon, he’d come home and take me by the hand and ask if I’d like to go somewhere, of course I did. It was always a nap. One of my fondest early memories. After 10 years, the terminal relocated out of the city.
Ever the risk taker, he opened a restaurant in Harvard Square called The Club House it sold club sandwiches, 48 varieties. This business model was not destined to survive; at the GT we only sell one club sandwich, they take time to build! My mother recalled a story of being left there one lunch by herself, she was ‘in the weeds’ to say the least with a line of customers and 48 possibilities. The Club House closed after 6 months.
In 1969 we moved to Maine, my mother’s home state. My parents opened a retail store called International Cargo. It was a Pottery Barn/Crate & Barrel/Pier One long before they were. It was a fantastic mix of housewares, baskets, local jewelry, smiley faced pins and black light Janis Joplin posters. My parents were actually responsible for bringing the first smiley faces to Portland. My parents opened three different locations but ultimately closed them after 5 years.
The next roll of the dice was a restaurant located on Congress and Free streets called Tony’s Place. My parents worked hard building a classic breakfast (the birth of Tony’s hash) and deli and then later, in the back of the space, a Greek restaurant called Zapion Taverna. The Zapion was far ahead of its time for Portland Maine, there were few ethnic restaurants much less, ones with live greek music and belly dancers. The vision my parents had to bring a piece of Greece to Maine resulted in a magical place. Both my brother and I were introduced to the restaurant trade there. Sadly the city tore up both Congress Street and Free Street for a new sewer system and it took its toll on a lot of local businesses. Tony’s place and The Zapion closed, but Bacchus stained window lives on in the GT bar.
Next, Tony headed to Boston to work with his brother while Mom started her own career with Mary Kay Cosmetics. After years of weekend visits and living apart, he came home. Tony then started a flower business wrapping single roses and baby’s breath in paper and selling them to convenience stores, ahead of his time once again. Next, he worked as a ‘turn-key prison guard’ the first time I had ever seen my father work for someone else.
In 1986 The Good Table was born. My father approached the owners of The Seoul House, a Korean restaurant that was where the GT sits now. With no money to outright buy the property and no backers, he made a deal, tossed the dice. He asked me to be his partner, he’d make me a star he said. The rest is history.
My take away from the weekend I spent peppering my father and mother with questions, is that my father was fearless. Chances were taken, bets made, empires built, empires lost. The entrepreneurs are the thinkers and the doers, not the movers and the shakers. My father took risks time and time again. I fear in today’s world it is much harder, if not impossible, to build a business from the ground up without investors, partners, banks. Could it be that the wild west of sorts barely exists anymore, where common folk could imagine, dream, build a success with just blood, sweat and tears? I asked my Dad if he felt those days were over and he wholeheartedly said yes.
So that is the road to lead us to this moment. I am thankful he taught me all he learned over the years. He and my mother made entrepreneurs out of both my brother and me. And we in turn have passed on the desire to work for oneself to the next generation.
‘the cure for anything
is salt water..sweat, tears or the sea’ isak dinesen