Why Are Diners Traditionally Greek? It’s an Immigration Story, Naturally

updated May 1, 2019
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There’s no official Bureau of Diner Ownership to keep count, but if you’re a diner fan, you know that Greek families traditionally run the show at these beloved 24-hour joints, especially in the Northeast.

Obvious giveaways include names like “Olympia Diner,” or charmingly ornate decor, like Greco-style columns, statues, or chandeliers. One diner in South Jersey even proudly displays its WiFi password at the entrance: FetaCheese (caps included!).

So how did so many Greek families come to run diners? At the heart of the answer is a classic American immigration story that still resonates today.

An American Dream

What we think of as the heyday of diners — the 1950s — coincided with the midst of several immigration waves from Greece. Greeks came to the United States in big numbers from the late 1800s through the 1930s, with more influxes in the ’50s and ’60s. By the mid-century point, many of the earlier arrivals had worked their way up from kitchen workers to full-fledged restaurant owners, but it wasn’t always that way.

Originally, they faced problems then that seemed ripped from today’s headlines (just substitute Somalian or Syrian for Greek).

“When the Greeks got here, it was like with the Italians, or Irish, or any other group before them — they were viewed suspiciously, like, ‘What do they want? They talk funny,’ and all this stuff,” Michael C. Gabriele, author of The History of Diners in New Jersey, says. “But they were trying hard to get a foothold on the American dream.”

And the American dream for the Greeks, it turned out, lay in restaurant work.

“Not many opportunities were open to them, but one thing they could do, because it was not the most popular job, was work in a diner or luncheonette, and do menial stuff, like washing dishes,” Gabriele says. “A lot of Greeks had a hard time getting people to hire them.”

Opportunity Knocks

Running a diner is a demanding business. So when owners inevitably started getting burnt out, many of the Greek staffers — who started working as dishwashers, paid attention to the elements of the business, and saved their money — organically started buying out exhausted owners, often in tandem with a brother or cousin, Gabriele explains.

“They didn’t come over as business people, just ordinary citizens, who worked hard, were street-wise, and learned what they needed to,” he says.

One advantage that Greek immigrants have when it comes to running small businesses is that mom-and-pop shops are more common than chains in Greece, says historian and author Dan Georgakas. “So they are skilled in dealing with customers and trying to create regulars rather than maximizing profit on each order.”

A 24/7 Job — Literally

Many of the diners were concentrated in the Northeast at the time, located near big factories, or train or trolley stops, to accommodate those wanting a bite after work, at all hours.

For the Velisaris family of Pittsburgh, owners of Ritter’s Diner, a landmark local restaurant in the Shadyside/Bloomfield neighborhood, Gabriele’s account fits their history to a T.

A second-generation owner/manager, John O. Velisaris, 42, explains that his uncles immigrated from Greece as teenagers in the 1950s, landing their first jobs working in various restaurants, and eventually taking over Ritter’s in 1966. When his own father immigrated in 1967, his dad immediately began working at the diner, too, later becoming a partner/owner.

His dad, now 76 years old, still works the overnight shifts.

“The restaurant business, especially when you never close, has its challenges and requires an incredibly strong work ethic,” Velisaris says. “Even as they get into their 80s, the first generation has never stopped working.”

Is There a Next Generation of Greek Diners?

The tradition of Greek diner ownership seems to be on the decline, as the younger generations scatter and move into other fields, but only time will tell.

Velisaris and his cousin have been working at the diner for more than 20 years, slowly taking over their fathers’ roles. “I’m proud to carry on the tradition of hard work, and hope to teach my children the same values I have learned from my dad and uncles,” he says.

“I don’t really expect the next generation to continue in the family business, but my dad didn’t think I’d be working with him either, so I guess you never know.”