George Seraphim Serpanos may not share the ingredients for his salad dressing but his recipe for success in Seattle’s restaurant business is no secret. He has owned seven restaurants, operated or worked in seven others and has relatives operating three more.
George’s father, Seraphim Serpanos, was from Stenoma, a small village between two mountains northwest of Karpenisi in the Evratenia area of central Greece. George’s mother, Alexandra Radzou, was from the nearby village of Domiani. After their marriage, Alexandra came to live with Seraphim in Stenoma where George was born on July 29, 1931. Alexandra died in 1944. After completing grammar school in Stenoma, George moved to Karpenisi by himself. He was fortunate to live with a school teacher, the teacher’s wife and their three children for one year while he attended high school. During that time he was sleeping on the floor and working at a lumber mill sweeping the sawdust off the floors.
In 1949, during the civil war in Greece, George was one of 800-900 young men from Karpenisi who were kidnapped at gunpoint to be trained as guerillas in Thesalia. There were almost 2,500 in custody at the time. The young men were told, “If you escape, we’ll execute you, just like the Germans.” Despite the warning George escaped four months later. He followed a potamaki (small river) downstream until he came to a logging road where he was rescued and taken to a hospital. He had been without food for four days, was infested with body tics and had to be fed with a feeding tube. A week later he was well enough to return to Karpenisi where the risk of capture and the civil war had diminished due mostly to the Marshall Plan (the European Recovery Plan) through which the United States helped rebuild European economies after World War II in order to prevent the spread of Soviet communism. Now, at over 81 years of age, George still has nightmares as he remembers his experience.
When he finished high school in 1955, George was technically an orphan and, because his father was a poor farmer, he was able to obtain a six-month job through a local elected official. When that job ended, he went back to the official and expressed his desire to become a travel agent. Shortly thereafter his request was granted and he opened a travel agency in Karpenisi. At the time, emigrating to Canada, Australia or even Venezuela was fairly easy. However, unless one had a “first degree” relative (father, mother or sibling) in the United States, emigrating there was almost impossible. Later, when the law was changed to include earthquake victims or those who lost their homes during the civil war, relocating to the United States became easier. George had a file for each of the over 200 people for whom he had arranged travel to America. Once the travelers had proper documentation, they would be sent to the American Embassy in Athens for a physical examination, then on to Piraeus to board a ship to their destination.
After his travel business declined, George began thinking about his own future in America. He now had three half-siblings, Christoforos, Irini and Kostoula from his father’s second marriage. His yiayia (grandmother) had two brothers somewhere in America with whom she had lost communication. With the help of his theo (uncle) Papa Spiros, a doctor, and the Red Cross, yiayia’s brother, Demitrios Lazos, was located in the Grays Harbor area of Washington State. George and his friend, Pete (Panagioti) Vlahos, from Stenoma both wanted to go, but Lazos was retired and could sponsor only one person. In 1956 George was surprised to receive an airline ticket and flew to Seattle, Washington, then on a small plane to Hoquiam where Lazos lived. He was greeted by his uncle’s German wife who spoke no Greek and George spoke no English. Uncle Demitrios had mistakenly gone to the Seattle airport and arrived in Hoquiam two hours later to meet his nephew and celebrate his arrival. In Hoquiam George remembers being baffled by the books for night classes at Grays Harbor Community College but enjoying the Friday night dances. He also remembers Chris Zambis, George Chimeris and the Ballasiotes family. (See THE BROTHERS THREE).
In 1957 Lazos became ill and George’s time in Hoquiam was coming to an end. He knew John Papantoniou, a Greek in Seattle, who had married a woman from Hoquiam. George missed the bus connection in Chehalis and found himself in Portland, Oregon, instead of Seattle. Luckily he found a Greek man who ran the café in the bus depot. With only $50 in his pocket, George was asked if he wanted to wash dishes and replied “Sure.” However, there was no dish washing machine and many piles of dishes so he called his friend John in Seattle and left Portland without even waiting for his paycheck.
In Seattle George found another Greek restaurant, George’s Café, operated by George Diafos. He began working there as a dishwasher, again with no machine, and stayed in a sleeping room above the restaurant. He worked there two years before applying as a busboy at the Marine Room in Seattle’s premier Olympic Hotel (now Fairmont Olympic). The manager was Greek and had hired several other young immigrants including Pete Farmasonis, Louie Carras, Jim Anas and the head of the busboys, Angelo Sarris.
George’s friend, Pete Vlahos, was teaching in Greece and wrote asking George to help him come to America. George knew the mayor of Hoquiam who was married to a Greek woman and asked for assistance in bringing Pete to the U.S. as a student. George then went to the president of Grays Harbor Community College which he had attended for help in filling out the required paper work. Six months later Pete joined his friend in Seattle. They both lived above George’s Café and were soon joined by another friend, Nick Arvanitides. George was able to live inexpensively while sharing the rather austere space.
In 1960 a customer in the Marine Room left a business card and asked George to work for him on a one-year contract at the new Hyatt Hotel coffee shop near the Seattle-Tacoma airport. For the next five years, George worked at almost every job in the hotel. On one occasion while driving the passenger van to and from the airport, he met Jerry Costacos who was in the rental car business. (See GO GREEK GO under Making a Living). Jerry introduced George to a number of dignitaries including the president of the Hyatt Corporation, state representative Bill Chatalas and Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini. George ultimately became manager of the Hyatt dining room, was able to dress well each day, was employee of the month and even taught the general manager’s children some Greek. He later met and hired Demo Apostolou and Demo’s cousin Bill Apostolou who later went into the restaurant business on their own.
In 1961 George was again looking ahead and decided it was time to get married. He went to Greece with the intent of finding a wife. Not finding the appropriate woman in Stenoma or Karpenisi, he went to Athens and reconnected with his father’s new family. After meeting a few women, George’s thea (aunt) said, “I have one for you.” Meropi Kontaxis, born December 4, 1942, was working for OTE, the Greek telephone company, where George first met her under the pretext of obtaining a telephone for the family home. When he saw Meropi leave, he followed her and saw her go into an apartment with another man. Thinking she had a boyfriend, he was discouraged until he later learned the man was her cousin who also worked for OTE. Meropi’s aunt was related to Pete Wells, a Seattle Greek restaurateur. Her aunt had written to Wells and obtained a positive report about George. George was “approved” by the family and just after giving Meropi an engagement ring, he had to return to America to be sworn in as a citizen and her family wondered if he would return. Two weeks later he did, and they were married in Athens on Friday, April 19, 1963.
When they returned to Seattle, George, Demo Apostolou and Aleko Gotsis partnered to purchase the Madison Café on Ninth and Madison. They gave it the name of TOPS 24, because it was to be the “top of the line” and it would be open 24 hours a day. The problem was that none of the three knew how to cook. They flipped coins and George was the winner. Demo and Aleko went on to open their own businesses and George hired cooks and wait staff. In addition to the food and drink, live Greek music made TOPS a popular destination for several musicians and appreciative audiences. TOPS was under George’s ownership from 1964 to 1978 when George turned the business over to his brother-in-law, George Valaoras, who operates the restaurant (now the First Hill Bar and Grill) to this day.
From 1979 to 1982 he operated Ser Panos at 145th and Aurora in Seattle. He then operated La Piazza in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood for seven years. In 1993 he and Meropi, with their daughter Alexandra and grandson Niko, spent three years in Greece. However, George missed Seattle and the family returned with an eye open for the next opportunity.
With a home in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, George would walk the area where he found what has since become Nikos Gyros, established in 1996. Since then an adjacent ice cream parlor was obtained to expand the original seating capacity of eight to 48. Niko, the Serpanos grandson, and inspiration for the restaurant’s name also works there while attending college. George is there every morning preparing everything that is necessary to get the doors open for business. And, there you can purchase Papou’s (grandfather’s) salad dressing from a recipe George created earlier in his career.
For George America had been all and more than he expected as a young immigrant. He was always able to find work and because he was responsible he was never fired. He has been able to support his family and bring his brother, two sisters, two brothers-in-law, one niece and mother-in-law to Seattle and sponsor a number of other immigrants. He knows that one must work hard and that it is not how much money one makes but how much one saves that brings success. And, he has found the restaurant business very rewarding. He has been able to help other family members attend college and believes education is like insurance, giving security to life. George has also assisted with AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) having been a member for over 50 years and with his Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption festivals. Meropi, having worked in all of the restaurants with George since their marriage, also spent 15 years in the travel industry. Alexandra maintains her Greek culture and recently became a certified symbolografos (Greek notary public).
George does not have to exercise to keep his weight down – “I have walked in my work all my life.”By John and Joann Nicon, October 2012
1 George and his salad dressing, 2010
2 Salad dressing bottles, 2012
3 George, the travel agent, circa 1955
4 George, circa 1990
5 George and Meropi wedding, Friday, April 19, 1963
6 Meropi in the tulips, 1995
7 First Hill Bar and Grill, formerly TOPS 24, 1990s
8 George and Niko, 1993
9 Niko, 2005
10 Meropi and Alexandra, 2006
11 At Nikos Gyros (l-r) George, Alexandra, Niko, Meropi, her brother Zissis, 2003
12 Meropi and George in front of Nikos, 2012
13 George at the Assumption Greek festival, circa 1975
Photo 1 courtesy Queen Anne News; photo 2 and 12 by John Nicon; photo 7 courtesy Trip Advisor; photo 11 courtesy The Taste; photo 13 courtesy The Assumption Church in History 1939-1979; all others from Serpanos family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, October 2012