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A Stranger's Act of Kindness Changed the Fate of a Greek Family-Owned Diner in Manhattan

Εθνικός Κήρυξ

Gee Whiz Diner in Lower Manhattan. Photo: Facebook

NEW YORK – Chris Panayiotou was featured in the New York Times sharing the story of the sign that led him to reopen Gee Whiz Diner, 295 Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan, after the death of his father, Peter Panayiotou, due to COVID-19 a few weeks after the diner shut down in March during the lockdown.

As so many families struggle with loss during the pandemic, Chris Panayiotou “was lost without his father” the Times reported, adding that “the remarkable gesture of a stranger helped him heal” and make the decision to reopen the 30-year-old family business.

Peter Panayiotou “had kept Gee Whiz thriving through Sept. 11, Hurricane Sandy and years of gentrification and soaring rents,” the Times reported, noting that “the pandemic proved too forceful,” and “the fate of the business was left in his son’s hands.”

“Chris Panayiotou, however, was deep in mourning, and struggled to take charge of what was essentially his second home,” the Times reported, adding that “it reminded him too much of his father.”

Gee Whiz Diner remained closed for three months and Panayiotou “wondered whether he should just give up and sell it,” the Times reported.

As the protests began after the killing of George Floyd and reports of “sporadic violence and looting in Manhattan” reached Panayiotou, he received “a call from a handyman who worked in the diner’s building, suggesting he should shore up the property,” the Times reported.

Panayiotou was surprised “to find that the restaurant was perfectly fine” and “indeed, the diner’s doors had been covered with messages and memories by customers, its entry filled with dandelions, orchids, and roses,” the Times reported.

Panayiotou “entered the diner for the first time since his father’s death,” the Times reported, adding that “a few minutes later, David Morales, a concierge from a building next door, rushed in.”

Morales told him, “They put your dad’s name on the sidewalk,” and explained that “in the previous few days, a man had been seen welding at night… engraving the name Peter Panayiotou on the sidewalk,” the Times reported, adding that “the mystery welder told a passer-by, ‘Peter was a good friend.’”

Morales showed Panayiotou the spot outside at the corner of Greenwich and Warren Street, and said, “Look down,” the Times reported.

The name was there “in elegant bulging block letters, three feet wide and sealed in Greek blue (it has since faded),” the Times reported, noting that Panayiotou “was speechless.”

Looking at his father’s name brought tears to Panayiotou’s eyes, and Morales “put his hand on Mr. Panayiotou’s shoulder and said, ‘I’ll let you be,’” the Times reported, adding that Panayiotou “stood there, he said, for another 10 minutes.”

“This is a sign,” he thought, “We’re going to reopen no matter what. No matter what. This is what Dad would want,” the Times reported.

Peter Panayiotou was 25 when he immigrated to the United States from Cyprus, the Times reported, adding that “in 1989, Peter and his business partner, Andy Koutsoudakis, who came from the Greek island of Crete, decided to start a restaurant that showcased home-style cooking.”

The business partners experimented with the menu and Panayiotou told the Times of his father’s cooking, “Food that reminded you of home, but with a twist.”

Customers participated in the menu development process as well, including Tak Inagaki, a longtime regular who later became a close family friend, and told the Times that “Peter would say, ‘Hey, try this!’ But would blindfold us so that we couldn’t see what we were eating.”

“Doors opened at 5:30 AM, welcoming ‘the morning coffee crew,’ including the homeless who could get free coffee, said Susan Guercio, who has been a customer for 22 years,” the Times reported, adding that the “doors closed at midnight, seven days a week. That is, until the pandemic shut the city down last March.”

Panayiotou told the Times that his father “tried to be upbeat about the situation,” adding that “I remember one of the waiters said: ‘All right, Pete. Goodbye,’ and my dad said, ‘Not goodbye — till I see you again.’”

The next day, the elder Panayiotou “complained about a stomachache,” the Times reported.

“We told him, ‘Maybe you’re nervous,’” Panayiotou said of his father, the Times reported, adding that “it was the first time Gee Whiz had shut down in 30 years, apart from the aftermath of Sept. 11, during which Peter Panayiotou spent several months cleaning up the damage from the terror attacks, just blocks away.”

“Being exposed to the pollution in 2001 contributed to Peter Panayiotou’s need for a double-lung transplant seven years ago,” the Times reported, noting that “as the virus emerged, he was 65 years old and considered high-risk for COVID-19” and “to be safe, the family took him to the emergency room, but he was sent home and told to isolate.” “By then, Chris’s mother, Maria, 67, had tested positive for the virus,” the Times reported, adding that “two days later, his father returned to the emergency room, but was again sent home. The following day, he turned blue. An ambulance came.”

“That was the last time we saw Dad, turning that corner in the ambulance,” Panayiotou told the Times.

“This time, his father remained at the hospital and was put on a ventilator,” the Times reported, noting that “he died on April 5, nine days after the death of Andy Koutsoudakis, his business partner of 30 years, also from COVID-19.”

The loss was devastating for Chris who spent days “in bed, and nights were spent on his living room sofa staring at the wall in the dark,” the Times reported, adding that “he started smoking again, going through a pack of Marlboro 27s a day and shedding close to 50 pounds in four months.”

Panayiotou had studied computer science at LaGuardia Community College and then at City Tech, the Times reported, noting that “he did not graduate,” but “instead, he decided to help his father with Gee Whiz, where he had grown up, getting training in various jobs along the way, and often doing his homework there after school.”

At age 8 when Chris struggled with a math problem, “his father told him to ‘use the KISS method, keep it simple, stupid.’ Take a step back, and don’t overthink it,” Panayiotou told the Times, adding that “there are little things you might overlook, but if you just look, the sign is right there.”

The mystery welder “had given Chris a sign to reopen the diner,” the Times reported, noting that “first, he wanted his family to see the tribute” and “his brother, sisters and mother all traveled to Gee Whiz to pay their respects to the welding. When they saw it, they wept, hugging one another in the same spot for almost an hour.”

The identity of the welder is still unknown, the Times reported.

Gee Whiz Diner reopened in August, the Times reported, adding that the new outdoor space features the elder Panayiotou’s favorite color, forest green, and “was built by the family and employees to evoke a typical diner interior.”

“We kept on asking ourselves, ‘What would Dad do?’” Panayiotou said, noting that “so many customers stop by just to share stories about my dad,” the Times reported, noting that “a customer recently came by not to eat, but to share a memory from 20 years ago about how Peter Panayiotou had given her a pendant light when she told him she was looking for the same light fixtures as the ones at Gee Whiz, but was having trouble finding them.”

At first, Panayiotou “wanted to avoid these conversations, but he has changed,” the Times reported.

“I know now to listen, because it’s how I can grieve,” Panayiotou told the Times.