After founder’s death, an iconic business carries on

George Giannaris began working at the Hellenic Snack Bar when he was 10 years old. Before he was in his mid-teens, he was cutting up pork for the restaurant’s menu. At 16, he was cooking in the kitchen.

His boss was his father, John, a man who loved what he did and had a work ethic that powered him through six- to seven-day work weeks, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, chatting with loyal customers and being the face and voice of the restaurant. 

“My father loved to work,” Mr. Giannaris remembered. “He’d be up early and working and go late into the night in the kitchen and then sit with other Greeks and talk until three in the morning. He never wanted to not be working.”

John Giannaris, who twice emigrated from Greece to America — he was deported the first time — and went on to build one of the North Fork’s most iconic restaurants, died May 12. He was 86. The North Fork is home to many family businesses that have lasted generations; the Hellenic Snack Bar is distinct among them.

The senior Giannaris’ life story began in Greece, where he was born in 1937. He worked as a cook on a merchant ship and, in the early 1960s, jumped ship in New York, hoping to begin a new life in a new land where a man dedicated to hard work could thrive and control his own destiny.

That first attempt was a bust. He was deported. Not one to give up on a good thing, he knew he would try again. In 1962, in Belgium, he married Anna Hartofilis, whose parents were from Nisyros, a small Greek island. Now, with his new wife, he returned legally to America, where, he became a banquet waiter at the Plaza Hotel while also painting apartments on the side and working in a brother-in-law’s donut shop. 

John Giannaris didn’t know how to slow down, or work at a slower pace. He didn’t need to be told to pull up his bootstraps; he’d always had a firm grip on them. Every day was pedal to the metal. He thought the standard 40-hour work week amounted to a part-time job. 

In 1976, ever the entrepreneur looking for a new opportunity, he teamed up with Anna’s first cousin Gus Hartofelis and bought what was then called Brown’s Cabins in East Marion. With the cabins came a snack bar not much bigger than a closet, where John managed what amounted to a very limited menu meant for the guests in the cabins.

Family lore has it that Gus nearly bulldozed the snack bar, only to be stopped by John. After Gus’s death, John Giannaris turned his attention to the restaurant, which he expanded to essentially what Hellenic patrons see today. 

“What is here now,” his son said, “is what my father built.”

George Giannaris was seated on the restaurant’s sunny patio on a warm Friday afternoon, and traffic was starting to build on County Road 48 in anticipation of Memorial Day weekend. Around him, guests sat at outdoor tables, enjoying the Greek food and the warm sun.

That morning, he had taken his mother — a constant presence at the restaurant for many years, in roles from hostess to bookkeeper — to a hospital appointment. Like George, his wife, Maria, also a fixture at the restaurant, and their sons Yianni and Savvas, Anna Giannaris is dealing with her husband’s death. 

Yianni — Greek for John, following the custom of naming the first son after the grandfather — went to MIT. Savvas is studying at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris with the goal of working in a Michelin star restaurant one day.

John Giannaris’ death has caused his son to think a great deal about what his father taught him and to understand better his father’s journey to success in America. His father was born before the outbreak of World War II. During the war years, when Greece was occupied by the Germans, there was not enough food to feed four sons. So it was a crisis when John, the third son, was born.

“The mothers in the village used to pass their babies around to see who could feed them,” Mr. Giannaris said. “One time my grandfather, who was in the merchant marine, shipped a crate of canned goods to the village meant to last months, but was distributed to the poverty stricken village within days.”

Post-war politics in Greece tilted toward a military dictatorship. This did not suit John Giannaris, and he was determined to make a new life elsewhere. He tried Australia, then the ill-fated first try in the U.S. 

When he finally returned to New York with Anna, they lived in Astoria, Queens. He held down three jobs and was sending money back to Greece, where the family returned for a brief period. Mr. Giannaris remembers attending junior high school in Greece.

The back-and-forth travel ended when the opportunity to buy Brown’s Cabins presented itself. 

“Gus would run the cabins, my father would run the snack bar,” Mr. Giannaris said. “Six stools, four tables. It was closed all winter.”

Asked what brought his father to the North Fork in the first place, Mr. Giannaris said it was simple: “Greeks loved this place because of the water. It was all around them. It reminded them of home.” 

Over the years, the Hellenic Snack Bar expanded. “My father was the chef,” he said. “When he had that job at the Plaza Hotel, he learned how to operate a restaurant. I started here when I was 10.

“My father cooked until he was 79,” the son recalled. “That was about 2016. But he would still come in every day. He had, for all those years, worked six to seven days a week. It was hard for him to change. It was hard on him not to be working. My dad worked 90 hours a week and he was okay with that.”

In his father’s absence, George Giannaris revisits the considerable lessons learned from him. “I learned you can get a lot done,” he said. “You can do a lot more than you think you can. My mom was the hostess; they were both here nearly every day.

“My whole family has an unbelievable work ethic,” he added. Another important lesson: “Give people more than they expect. Never cut quality. I started here cutting pork into cubes. I was a dishwasher and did prep work. I started cooking full-time when I was 16 and now I am 54.”

Mr. Giannaris received an engineering degree from Stony Brook University. He had plans beyond the kitchen. But he is here, working hard alongside Maria. The Giannaris story goes on.

He knows computers cold and wrote the programs the restaurant uses to keep its books straight. He still picks up food ingredients himself at a warehouse up west. He has other passions as well, including writing, and has authored two books, “Ferry Tales” and “Ferry Tales 2: When Hellenic Freezes Over.” He has a YouTube channel and a studio in his Cutchogue home.

“My dad was an impactful person,” Mr. Giannaris said. “When he passed away, the procession passed by the restaurant. There were more than 100 cars in the line. He was a good human being. He enjoyed life. He cherished this business.”