As his Greek dance students were poised to go on stage, John Tziotis called out “showtime” to raise their spirits for the performance. He has been affectionately known by that nickname since that time. While he and his wife Katerina are most often associated with their restaurant, Plaka Estiatorio, in Seattle, Washington, his experience as a musician, dancer and overall handyman add considerably to his story.
Ioannis “Yiannis” (John) Dometios Tziotis was born in Piraeus, Greece, on March 31, 1951. His father, Dometios, was born on the island of Syros, in the Cyclades group of the Aegean Sea and supported his family by working in the post office. His mother, Ourania Mantheau, was also from Syros. John’s siblings are Paraskevas and Maroulitsa who live in Greece and Stavros who lives in Mobile, Alabama. John remembers a good life in Piraeus with his maternal grandmother and other relatives nearby. He can also trace his family back five generations and believes the family name, Tziotis, came from the name of the island tzia-Kea. When his ancestors moved to the island of Andros they were addressed as Tziotis, as many family names were derived from their home island or village.
In Athens John completed school through ninth grade, was a track and field athlete in the 5- and 10-kilometer events under his personal coach Adonis Avramidis (Greek and European champion with Panathenaikos club). But, soccer was his passion. John’s father thought John would benefit by finishing his schooling while living with his brother Stavros in Mobile, Alabama. At age 15, while waiting for his visa and, with his parents’ permission, John entered the Greek Merchant Marines. He worked as an apprentice engineer for a year traveling to many countries on the Mediterranean and Black Seas. At 16, with his visa approved, he left Greece to be with his brother. His first time ever on an airplane with Olympic Airways was a very exciting experience. The only knowledge he had of the United States had been gleaned from Hollywood movies. With his merchant marine experience, a love of working with his hands and an interest in electronics, John entered the United States with a number of skills. Instead of entering school he began working as a cook at his brother’s restaurant which was frequented by a number of Greek seamen whose ships were harbored in Mobile.
John moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1968 to try out for the Atlanta Chiefs soccer team. However, an injury kept him from pursuing a soccer career. In Atlanta, while searching for work, he worked odd jobs for others in the Greek community as a painter, electrician or general handyman. His first job was in the kitchen of the Greek Village, Bouzoukia, a night club with live music and entertainment. It was here where he learned to play the drums and his Greek musical career began. At the same time he performed as a dancer and Greek dance instructor. By 1970 he was a full time musician and entertainer. Through 1977, John traveled around the United States from New Jersey to Florida and from Louisiana to Washington State. During that time Greek musicians were in demand and John was able to earn good money playing with a number of groups.
In 1976 he was playing with a group in Tarpon Springs, Florida, led by Tony Proios. Tony signed a one year contract with Pete Farmasonis who owned the Greek Village restaurant in Seattle (see A GREEK VILLAGE FOR TWO). Tony along with John, Nikos Halkas and Panagiotis Lambropoulos moved to Seattle, a move that resulted in an additional two-year contract.
While John was working at the Greek Village, the Stephanos (Steve) Kazakos family often frequented the restaurant. Kazakos operated two Brother’s Cafés at the time, one in Seattle’s Dexter Horton building and the other in the Northwest Medical Center building. John eyed the Kazakos daughter, Katerina “Kathy,” and knew she shared his music and dance interests. He also learned that Kazakos had lost one of his cooks and John offered to help at the Brother’s Café (with a desire to be closer to Katerina). John worked there until Kathy said “yes” and they were married on December 4, 1977. A daughter, Ourania, was born to the couple on October 21, 1978. Their son, Dometios, followed on April 18, 1981. John knew that a musician’s life and raising a family could be incompatible and gave up his musical career. Also in 1981, John and Katerina ventured into their own business, the Golden Dolphin restaurant, in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood which they operated for the next three years. The menu consisted of basic American breakfast and lunch fare.
In 1985 John’s father-in-law, Stephanos Kazakos, purchased the property on North 85th Street in the Greenwood neighborhood where his son, Theodoros “Laki” Kazakos, operated Luckys Automen Auto Repair. A few months later Stephanos purchased a small Gyro distribution company also operated from the same property. Katerina and Yiannis operated Stephanos Gyros Foods using two chest freezers and a cooler, a 1982 blue Chevy van (known around the city as the gyro van) and Katerina’s baby blue 70s Ford Pinto, as the delivery vehicles. Slowly, the business grew from supplying Gyro meat, Pita bread, Tzatski sauce, Feta cheese and Kalamata olives, to a major import business as the number of Greek, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants multiplied in Seattle.
In 1991 the Kazakos family opened Georgia’s Greek Restaurant and Deli in the former auto repair location and it is now operated by Laki. In 1992, as both businesses were growing and Stephanos was approaching retirement, Yiannis and Katerina purchased Stephanos Gyros Foods. At the same time Yiannis and Katerina had applied for a wine and beer distributor license for Greek wines and beers under the name J and K Importers. In 1993 the business moved into a large building across the street from Georgia’s Greek Deli, added a 1000 square-foot freezer and changed the business name to Yiannis Foods and Wines. Yiannis Foods and Wines has become a well-known importer and distributor of European and Mediterranean products for the greater Seattle area and Washington State. Over the years, the product line has increased to include meat, chicken, seafood, yogurt, olives, oils, pasta, canned goods, coffee, spices and a variety of beers and wines from many regions in Greece.
Just as John and Katerina worked in restaurants from an early age, their children have worked alongside them. They have raised their children to understand that hard work and a good business mind can be very rewarding. As the Tziotis family was frequently serving Greek cuisine to guests in their home, it was prophetic that they begin their own restaurant to continue the hospitality and provide opportunities for their children to become self-employed. Their son Dometios has slowly assumed management of Yiannis Foods and Wines. In 2008 John and Katerina, Dometios, Ourania and Tony Mandapat (son-in-law) were celebrating Tony’s promotion at a local Ballard restaurant and came upon a vacant commercial space. They all looked at each other and thought, “What a great location.” So, with a great deal of “hands-on” remodeling, Plaka Estiatorio began, with Ourania as general manager. The menu captures the Athenian flavors Katerina remembers as a child and regional Greek cuisine as featured dishes. John’s “showtime” hospitality, Katerina’s culinary skills and Ourania’s management skills made it an instant success. On Yiannis’ birthday in 2011, Dometios and Katerina created a new business Alpha Olive Oil Packing, LLC. Dometios took his father’s idea, spent hours of research, ordered most of the equipment and parts on line and with together with his parents established the production line. Alpha is its own company, blending and packing oils with private labels, supplying distributors and end users and is growing rapidly.
Now, having worked in, operated or owned several restaurants and the import business, John knows he has provided a future for his children and hopes he can see their success. And, with a twinkle in his eye, he looks forward to receiving a small check from them in his retirement.
Both Katerina and “Showtime” have given of their talents to Seattle’s Greek community. They have taught Greek dancing and endeared their students with enthusiasm and creativity. Katerina performed with the dance group at Seattle’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption from 1972 to 1977. In the 1980s she assisted with the Assumption dance group during the west coast Folk Dance Festival (FDF) completion. For ten years in the 1990s John and Katerina managed a dance program for over 40 students in three performing dance groups. During their first years together John and Katerina even taught dancing to a number of Greek Sephardic Jewish families who they met at the Greek Village most of them from the Island of Rhodes. John was part of the Greek-American soccer team in 1978 when he joined Seattle AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) Juan De Fuca chapter 177, enjoying the company of his Greek friends. John also served in several officer capacities both at the local and district levels of AHEPA. John and Katerina have also been very supportive of activities at Greenwood Elementary School which their children attended and their grandchildren attend today.
John has always remained in close contact with his Greek community and Greek friends. Even if he had remained in Greece, he believes he would have used his skills working with his hands, partying and enjoying time with his friends. In the United States his experiences have been “all good.” He loves a challenge and refuses to be told he cannot do something. He values the lessons from his parents to accomplish something with his life and to assume responsibility in his community to make it a better place.
When asked if he has a favorite saying, John tells his children, “Call me if you need anything, but if the police call me I don’t know you.” The police have never called. He is pleased to be a long-time Seattleite having established friendships since the 1970s. His words of wisdom are “Go to school, work hard and be happy.” And, just remember him as “Showtime.”By John and Joann Nicon with Katerina Tziotis, June 2015 PHOTOS
1 John at Yiannis Foods and Wines, 2014
2 John and Katerina dancing at Plaka, circa 2014
3 John, circa 1954
4 John’s medals
5 John in the Greek Merchant Marines, circa 1966
6 John and friend Barbara in Mobile, Alabama, 1967
7 Stavros and John in Mobile
8 John drumming, circa 1970
9 John dancing in Atlanta with Maria and Eleni, 1969
10 Sound of Music (l-r) George Palatania, George Sofos, John, Gus Limonakos, 1970s
11 John playing with The Golden Dolphin, Atlanta, circa 1970
12 In Atlanta (l-r) George Sophos, John, Babis Gliparis, George Evagoras, Athina, circa 1972
13 Brother’s Café, Seattle (l-r) Stephanos, Georgia, Katerina and John, 1976
14 Katerina and John wedding, 1977
15 Family (l-r) Voula Zorbas, Theodoros Zorbas, John, Ourania Tziotis, Vasili Zorbas, Dometios Tziotis, Maroulia Zorbas, Maroulitsa Tziotis, circa 1979
16 Opening Plaka Estiatorio (l-r) John, Katerina, Dometios, Ourania and Tony, 2009
17 Katerina, John and Ourania at Plaka, circa 2009
18 Bishop of Dodecanese, Costa Kyrimis and John, 2006
19 Greek American soccer team in Seattle, John at center rear, 1980s
20 Tziotis family (l-r) standing; John, Katerina, Tony Mandapat, Ourania, Dometios; sitting: Marcelenos, Santa, Dometios, circa 2008
21 Folk Dance Festival celebration (l-r) Thalia Denos, John, Katerina, 1990
22 John and Katerina, 2014
Photos 1 and 20 by John Nicon; 15 from Ballard News Tribune, all others from Tziotis family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, July 2014; Ballard News Tribune; www.plakaballard.com