2016-11-02 / Community View

‘He would’ve done anything for anybody’

Sam’s Coney owner fondly remembered
810-452-2609 • kmoralee@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER – On Halloween day, 1974, when he was 17 years old, Sam Giannakopoulos left Greece, where he was born, and traveled to the United States. He had uncles in the Flint area, so that’s where he went. Just two years later, he and a partner, Nick Manousos, purchased a place downtown Lapeer with an iconic curved window, and Sam’s Coney Island was born.

Sam lived and breathed the business for the next 40 years, carrying on by himself after Manousos died, but on Oct. 12, Sam passed away suddenly, leaving behind a legacy that the new owners vow to uphold. He was only 59 years old.

Sam’s son, Tony Giannakopoulos, was born and raised in the restaurant business. It was his first job, at age 16, and he was there until June 2015, when they decided to sell the business to Vangjel Shyti. The transition was seamless because Sam kind of came as a package deal with the restaurant, and to the very end, he was either there in person or checking in on the phone, every single day. It’s what he did. That restaurant was his life, whether he owned it or not, and Shyti was happy to oblige.

“I told them when I signed the paper that as long as he’s around, he rules the place,” Shyti said. “It’s still Sam’s Coney Island.”

Shyti describes Sam as “old school, but a very, very nice guy.” In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has an unkind word to say about the man, particularly those who have worked for him. When asked to comment about their late boss, not one single employee was able to manage a dry eye. A long-time cook, for whom Sam reportedly purchased his first vehicle, wasn’t able to comment at all.

“He would’ve done anything for anybody,” said waitress Tammie Gnirs, who has worked there for 20 years. “He was the best boss and the best friend. It was more like family here than work. It’s not like coming to work at all. It’s like home.”

Waitress Sherri Borst agrees. Her mother worked there for 10 years, and Borst met Sam in 1979 when she started working there herself. Now, her two daughters work there as well.

“I brought them in rolling silverware,” she laughed, and added, “There’s nothing bad to say about (Sam). He loved to do what he did.”

For Tony, growing up with a father who was so dedicated to his career meant no family vacations and a lot of times dad wasn’t there, however, he is left with pride in the legacy his father left behind. He remembers his father as many others do — generous and caring. If someone came in and couldn’t pay their bill, he’d cover it for them. He enjoyed talking to his customers, and put them and his employees before himself.

“He’s been a staple in downtown Lapeer, supporting the community and donating to local organizations and schools every year, employing hundreds of people,” said Tony. “Lasting through the struggling economy and the many businesses closing down in downtown Lapeer over the many years, Sam’s has still stayed strong.”

Sam created the no-frills menu himself, and Tony said he was proud of his homemade specials, soups, chili, rice pudding and “the best homemade Coney sauce and breakfast in Lapeer, voted year after year.” Shyti said he has no intentions of changing the menu, because what Sam had going on there is working just fine. He plans to make a few upgrades to the seating area and a remodel of the kitchen, but for the most part, Sam’s will remain the same.

Well, minus one very important piece.

The chair where Sam often sat in the back is still there, waiting for him. The employees say they can still feel his presence there, checking in and making sure everything is okay. If something random happens, like a light flickering or a pan falling, they say, “Really, Sam?” and laugh. He’s still there in spirit, they know it, and Borst said she’s having a photo of him made and framed to hang in the dining area so he can still watch over his place.

“He will miss his restaurant, customers, employees and the City of Lapeer,” Tony said. “I know he would want continued support for the new owners moving forward.”

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