Othonas (Thomas) Dimitriou Soukakos was born on June 21, 1957, in Piraeus, Greece. His baptismal name is the same as the first King of Greece but is actually the Greek translation for the German Othon. As Thomas never liked the king’s name, and his parents were “rightists”, he unofficially changed his name while working on a cruise ship and legalized the name when he obtained his “Green Card” and became a lawful permanent resident. His family name, Soukakos, has its origin from Gythio, an area in the southern part of the Peloponnese.
Thomas’ mother, Ekaterini “Katina” Tsororou, was from the village of Anavryti near Sparta. She married Dimitri Soukakos in November of 1953. Thomas knows little of his father as Dimitri died when Thomas was eight years old in 1965 leaving the family with a partially completed home. Thomas’ younger sister Stavroula passed away in 2004. Katina lived until 1994.
Dimitri had operated a traveling carnival with games and rides. When he died, Thomas and his mother assumed the business traveling to panagiria (town carnivals) and other celebrations, erecting a tent and providing entertainment for children. Thomas was unable to complete his elementary education as he was supporting his ailing mother and sister by the time he was 12 years old. While the family was very poor, Thomas prefers to think of these as “hard times” rather than “bad times.”
In 1973, at age 16, Thomas learned of a neighbor who was working on ships earning $300 per month. He obtained his seaman’s papers with his mother’s approval but with the provision that he work only on passenger ships, not cargo ships. Thomas began his first job at sea during the summer on the ferry traveling between Piraeus, the island of Corfu and Brindisi, Italy. In Brindisi he admired a 400-passenger ship, the SS ITHACA, and longed to work on that ship. When the summer ferry season ended, he was fortunate to obtain work on the ITHACA as a cabin boy. For the next ten years Thomas sailed on the ITHACA in the Mediterranean, to Africa, Scandinavia and Europe. His work evolved from washing dishes to waiting tables or tending bar. In 1976 he completed his service in the Greek Army for 18 months rather than the customary three years as his father had died and he was the sole supporter of his family. Following his military obligation he transferred to the ITHACA’s sister ship CALYPSO which had a 700-passenger capacity. The CALYPSO was eventually purchased by Western Cruise Lines, an American company, re-named the AZURE SEAS and based in Los Angeles, California. Thomas and nine of his co-workers decided to accept the offer to work on the AZURE SEAS and he flew to California where he worked on the ship for three more years.
Thomas’ English had improved through his work on the AZURE SEAS and, at age 28, he decided to pursue a different course and remain in the United States. Even with only his visitor’s visa at the time, he chose to remain on land and did not return to the ship. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1983. Until then his primary focus was to support his family both from afar and during his time with them in Greece. In Los Angeles he found work at the Hilton Hotel through connections with other Greek hotel employees. As a good worker he was never asked to show his credentials and was fortunate when President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration reform bill which made any immigrant who had entered the United States before 1982 eligible for amnesty. Thomas received his green card, became a permanent resident and traveled to Greece the next day knowing he could safely return to California.
Following his time at the Hilton, Thomas worked in a number of fine dining establishments in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, learned more about fine dining, California cuisine, fresh produce and worked in different positions: in the kitchen, waiting tables and serving as maître d. He always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. Thomas began to find Los Angeles too large for his liking and considered returning to Greece permanently. During this time he had attended classes at Long Beach City College and gained some knowledge of the history of the United States. This experience strengthened his thoughts of remaining in his new country rather than returning to the hard life in Greece.
A friend who had moved to Washington State to sell real estate convinced Thomas to purchase a house in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, and rent it out for income. Thomas had saved some money at the time and had had enough of cruise ships. In 1994 he headed north with all his belongings with the intent to sell the house and return to Greece. Unfortunately the housing market was poor and he decided to stay until the market improved.
In Seattle Thomas worked for Jim Malevitsis (see HE’S MY RIGHT HAND) at Ponti Seafood Grill and was asked to assume more responsibility there. Meanwhile he found a small coffee shop on Broadway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that was for sale and with his and some borrowed money he turned the place into a small restaurant which he called El Greco.
It was at El Greco that Carol Pierce successfully applied for a job, contributed her culinary skills and stole Thomas’ heart. After they were married in 1996 it was the best time of his life with an “amazing wife and cook” and as Thomas said, “I am here and I have something to believe in.” Their son, Alexander, was born on September 4, 2001. Tragically, Carol took her own life four months later, having suffered from post-partum depression. Carol’s death was a complete mystery and Thomas considered suing the doctors who, for legal reasons, refused to answer his inquiries. Thomas conducted his own research and attended a post-partum support event in Santa Barbara, California. This began a campaign to create Post-Partum Support International whose motto is “Speak up when you are down.” Thomas has spoken before the state legislature in Olympia, Washington, at Quest Field (Seattle’s professional football and soccer stadium) in front of 10,000 people, and has been able to raise significant amounts of money to support the cause as well as provide for a fund for Alexander. Thomas remains very active in the organization.
With a four-month-old baby and no interest in operating El Greco, Thomas knew he would sell the restaurant. He and Alexander spent three months in Greece where Thomas dreamt about a friend who would buy the restaurant. Prophetically, that person did purchase the restaurant. After almost two years without work or income, Thomas considered what he should do next. Given his devotion to Alexander and importance of family closeness, he wanted a “100% successful” restaurant with a Greek flavor but more importantly, one where families could dine together and feel part of their community. He found a residential location on the corner of 19th and Aloha, not far from El Greco, which was ideal but it was not available. However, next door was the former Gilmore Grocery store with large refrigerators, some usable fixtures and with more space than he needed at the time. So, Vios (from the Greek root word life – as in biography) was created and includes a play area for children.
In 2008 a customer approached Thomas with the idea of opening another restaurant, this one to be associated with Third Place Books in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. The name of the book store is based on people having three places: home, work or school and community. For Thomas, it felt “just right” and Vios Café has operated since 2008.
Thomas was not sure he would ever marry again. However while attending a healing center support group for young adults he met Rebecca Stodola and realized how special she was. In 2009 they had three weddings, one in Hawaii on New Year’s Eve to leave the old year behind, a second at Vios and, finally, a third on the island of Icaria, Greece, where he and Alexander had visited and fallen in love with the people there. Thomas had promised himself that, if he ever married again, it would be on Icaria.
Restaurant work for Thomas really began with his work on cruise ships. While operating El Greco, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California. He was also heavily influenced by his first wife, Carol, who was an exceptional chef. He recognizes the importance of food for people’s well-being and that meals should be carefully planned to provide enough sustenance and that quality is much more important than quantity.
Thomas has always pursued new experiences and chose to expand his work beyond the typical Greek theme, perhaps subconsciously to put the hard times in Greece behind him. He has wanted to work on his own, knowing what it was like as a poor child in Greece and being able to rise to a successful level in America. While living in Everett he would often have guests at his home for meals. He thought why not open a restaurant, have the same guests enjoy their time there and even pay for the experience.
Thomas has received much support from his community, not only from his customers, but from partners or investors who believe in his approach. He has also contributed to his community, although his work has prevented him from extensive involvement in the Greek community or the Greek Orthodox Church. He believes his openness to working with others, Greek and non-Greek alike, has contributed to any success he has experienced. Additionally, he knows that Greeks have had an influential cuisine with unique ingredients for centuries and a hospitable life style. Dining with one’s family and with others strengthens relationships. He has never been concerned about his competitors. Rather, he depends on what he can do to make the dining experience memorable. He loves what he does and is not satisfied when customers visit for the first time but when they come back again.
Thomas sees himself as an advocate for the Greek style of dining. At this writing, he is planning a new restaurant, this one with an all-Greek theme named Omega Ouzeri: Omega for the “ultimate” or maybe the last and Ouzeri serving primarily mezedes (appetizers) and Ouzo and other beverages. And, with many Seattleites dining out on a regular basis, he knows it will be a success.
While some Greeks may show their heritage as if they were “carrying the Acropolis on their back,” that has not been Thomas’ approach. As an immigrant he has been treated well in the United States but is firm in saying he would not have allowed anyone to treat him badly. He has been fortunate to be at the “right place at the right time” but also credits his outgoing, friendly personality with his good fortune. He was the favorite kid in his Pireaus neighborhood and is received warmly when he returns to Greece where he is remembered for his loyalty to and support of his mother and sister. He values the lessons his mother taught him, the knowledge and expertise of older people and the support he has received from those who saw his potential and encouraged him. He sees his work simply as part of life and views working in restaurants as quality time, just different from the quality time with his family.
Thomas describes himself as a survivor and one who will always be there for his community. He says that the quality of his life will be judged by the number of people who come to his funeral. If the funeral is anything like his restaurants, there will be a long waiting line at the door.By John and Joann Nicon (January 13, 2015) PHOTOS
1 Thomas Soukakos, 2014
2 Panagioti Tsororou, maternal grandfather, 1980s
3 Thomas’ mother, Katina, early 1960s
4 Thomas, 1960s
5 Thomas’ seaman’s papers, 1973
6 Thomas in the army, 1976
7 Thomas on the AZURE SEAS, 1992
8 Thomas at Diporto, Athens, 1996
9 Thomas and Carol in Greece, 1996
10 Thomas at VIOS, 2006
11 Thomas dancing at VIOS, 2008
12 Thomas and Rebecca in Icaria, 2009
13 Thomas and Alexander, circa 2004
14 Alexander, 2014
15 VIOS truck, 2014
Photos 1 and 15 by John Nicon; 10 from SEATTLE WEEKLY; all others from Soukakos family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2014