By Bob Nicolaides
It may have been resentment, but as John Moshos was growing up in lower Connecticut with the luxury of having what he needed thanks to his family owned diner, he did not appreciate having to wake up early on weekends and drag himself to work. How come he wasn't allowed to play ball or hang around like his peers, he thought. And what is this about making a living out of serving food? Would he not fare better as a financier?
John Moshos with his parents and sister
at the Elm Street Diner
With this mindset, John was distancing himself from his older sister Stella, who proved to be a natural as a hostess and dining room manager, and his mother, Helen, whose home-style cooking attracted customers at the business their father, Evangelos, had created with the help of his wife to provide for their family of four. It took some time for John to realize you're always better off where there's something jingling in your pocket, like change or better. It took him time to realize that what his parents were doing was instilling discipline in him and molding him into a responsible being. "It was the best thing they ever did for me" he now exclaims often enough.
As the years went by and college became imminent, John received a scholarship from New York University and as an economics major in that institution of higher learning, he made it as an honors student. One thing that eludes him to this day however is why at interview times after he applied for posts in his chosen field, without exception interviewers always asked him about the family business!
A major investment bank liked his résumé and hired him, which at the time he felt it was the career he was seeking. After five years with the company, he felt stalemated and ready to go out on his own. He quit his investment banker position and began to search for a deal that would make him independent. It was then that his father suggested to him that, while he was making up his mind as far as next move, he come and work in the family's enterprise. After all, there was always room for him while the diner produced a good income for the family.
But now he had to contend with the customers familiar with his education who constantly asked about his "other job." "It was as if people were trying to make me feel ashamed for working with my family and in a sense 'wasting' my diploma. I must admit it was a bit unnerving," he recalls of his early baptismal into the diner business. Luckily, he did not perceive it that way. Not only did he find the work rewarding but got to use his financial skills acquired at school more than ever! "The last thing I wanted was to be perceived as some spoiled diner owner's son who just hangs out, drives nice cars, and spends his father's money."
It was then that the major decision was made by the
younger Moshos. There was nothing wrong with working
in the family business, so long as you had your input,
and could back it with applications that worked. He
went up to his father and, with plenty of courage
due to the relationship between them, asked him to
have enough faith in him to allow him to bring their
business to a new, higher level. Though Evangelos
was the conservative type and liked the diner's menu
as it stood, he took voluntarily a back seat to his
son, who wanted to introduce new dishes to entice
a new generation of guests. As the rest is history,
which will unfold in a few paragraphs, we thought
it was time to bring forth the background on how the
family business evolved from the day Evangelos made
it to the United States as an immigrant.
has come to realize over most of the last century
- and this one as well - the diner as we know it is
undoubtedly an American institution. Throughout the
years, Greek immigrants arriving in this country with
little or no knowledge of the English language have
propelled themselves into mainstream America by entering
the hospitality industry. The why was as obvious as
day. It was the trade that offered everyone on Main
Street a quality meal, in a timely fashion, and for
a rather inexpensive price.
The stakes of the diner
have now been raised beyond the original rationale,
with the maturing of a second generation of diner
owners - call them restaurateurs if you wish - by virtue
of their sons and daughters having grown and having
been thoroughly educated. Many of these young men
and women, having received degrees in a variety of
professions from prestigious universities across the
nation, have turned down the opportunity of entering
corporate America just for the thrill of stepping
into their parents shoes and perpetuating the family
business, not only because they find it to be a successful
venture, but also because they have grown to appreciate
the discipline and hard work it offers.
In the coming months, through these pages, we will
be featuring some of the individuals who qualify in
this category across the nation! In this, the first
in a series, the story of John Moshos of Stamford
is told, with an introduction to his father's struggle
to become a diner owner in the 1980s, while the younger
Moshos was still growing up. The American dream is
a legend that has spread throughout the world - that
prosperity is founded in liberty and that liberty
can be advanced through prosperity. Every immigrant
who takes the arduous journey to our shores has reached
them in the quest of these ideals. Each has a unique
tale to tell and one such story is that of Evangelos
Moshos, of Sparta, Greece, now of Stamford, who has
been for quite a while the owner of the Elm Street
The year is 1968 and Moshos, having completed his military stint, faces a risky choice at the tender age of 22: remain in his native land and work in the modest family business or pursue his dream by following it to the land with the outstretched arms that embrace the world's poor and displaced. He decides on the second! On borrowed money from a friend he knew since childhood, he leaves his native Sparta for the unknown future that lies ahead of him. With the vision of success before him, he echoes the words that swell as they are repeated by thousands like him, drowning any sound as the sentence recurs: "I arrived on Friday and by Monday I was already working."
The work he refers to, taking into consideration the limited knowledge of his host nation's language, is in the restaurant industry. The entry level to the industry naturally is the job of the dishwasher, which he performs unashamedly. In the 20 years that ensued he has done every task imaginable and learned every phase of the industry. And it is something that Moshos believes in with passion. In order to declare that you are a restaurateur, you must've worked at every single job the business entails, starting from the very bottom. It is imperative, particularly if you intend to reach the very pinnacle of the organization, attaining no less than the ownership. During these years, between the rigor of working untold hours and his striving to attain the ultimate plateau in his business, the older Moshos found the time to develop a relationship with Helen, whom he married.
It is in no way uncanny how wives can talk their spouses into doing what they would've never dared on their own. So with Moshos not being the exception to the rule and with Helen's prodding, we find him looking over a diner that happened to be for sale. The year is 1987 and Evangelos has already 20 years of experience behind him. It is high time for him to afford the luxury of diner ownership. So with the confidence his background provided him, he finally decided to buy the Elm Street Diner. No one told him it would be easy, nor did he expect it to be. But he did put in the long hours necessary. The days and -nights- were long and the work was hard, knowing that this is the only way to success. And success came to him. Progressively it became easier as the children grew up and the entire family pitched in. The business expanded and the diner underwent two facelifts that brought its capacity from under 100 to 175 seats.
The Elm Street Diner is a family business, with every
member of the family having a distinct duty. Helen
is the backbone of the operation - as well as the
family - making sure there is that certain homegrown
touch in the kitchen and what comes out of it. After
all, it wasn't easy for her to forfeit her own career
as a hospital supervisor so she could devote her time
to her growing children as well as the family business.
It isn't an exaggeration to say that many of the guests
at the Elm Street Diner are patrons who indulge on
her homemade daily specialties.
The Moshos family restaurant
Then there is Stella, the daughter who has been the iconic image at the restaurant since she graduated from school. She is a natural in what she does, and what she does best is to run the day-to-day operation. That makes her the dining room or "front end" manager, something she has relished since a young age. But do not let this arrangement fool you. The last word lies with Evangelos, the father who has put years on end to make the business profitable. The family will turn to him for his judgment. As Stella points out, "His wisdom and experience alone in this business commands the respect that we go to him before a final decision is made."
When we last spoke about John, he was ready to bring the first-generation diner into the present. The first step was to change the menu. And although the elder Moshos was a traditionalist, he liked the innovations that John was bringing in. A coordinated effort between the family, the staff, and the innovations instituted, the business grew beyond belief, though the basic principles set by the family patriarch were strictly observed. "My father's system" he says, "has worked and made him successful. We respect that and adhere to his rule, the rule being that 'if you work hard, you will be successful.' Mind you, consistency is a key to success. Initially, I laughed when I heard him say it, but his motto of 'bacon and eggs today is the same as bacon and eggs tomorrow,' works, because it is the rule of consistency."
Another rule that John did not attempt to bend was
the freshest ingredients for their dishes, "fresh"
also applying to all cooking, which is done fresh
on a daily basis. We must also adhere to another rule,
which is that diner customers are seeking substantial
quantities of food. Unlike haute cuisine dining, which
dictates that the portion is small so that the guest
orders more and pays accordingly, the diner customer
wants to be treated as family, which translates into
giving him all he can eat of quality food and at very
competitive prices. Atmosphere - it is called ambience-
also counts: that is, atmosphere that reminds them
of home. John also thinks that familiarity -this notion
of calling guests by their first name- works and is
sought by customers. He's also proud of the fact that
many of their guests (call them regulars) come in
for all three meals in a day. They also flock to the
diner around the holidays just to taste the homemade
Greek pastries their mother prepares for all of their
John relates with a sense of pride the fact that they were voted in a major publication in the city of Stamford as having the Best Lunch Menu, and that was the result of a charitable affair we have been involved with. Beyond that, John most of all wishes that this article makes an impact with all college graduates involved in their family business, as a catalyst for their effort and success. "I consider myself lucky for being born into a family that owned a diner in which I can prove my skills. It is mind-boggling to describe how many colleagues I have encountered who wished their family owned a business such as ours, where they can apply their knowledge."
Then he continues: "We are part of a new generation who can be extremely successful and take what our fathers gave us and extend it to a higher level." As far as this last comment, John continues about the plans he is about to implement. "I am planning on taking a course at the Culinary Institute in this fall, in order to further advance and understand the workings of the business." He admits that at times he misses the financial industry, but is happy to be working with his family as entrepreneurs who own their own enterprise.
At the same time, he reveals that the family has already begun contemplating another round of expansion for the end of the year. "We'd like to upgrade it to a 300 capacity and construct a full in-house retail bakery." The peculiarity here however is that, at times when he discusses future plans with his dad, he hears him complain that he is tired and that he wants to retire and spend a long vacation in his native Greece. But at sobering times, he sees him doing his own planning for the business and scratching on pads the way he envisions the refurbished diner should look. So John believes deep down his father is reluctant to leave his creation.
Asked what his future plans entails; he replies that he's not quite sure. "If my sister and I are half as ambitious and determined as our parents were, I assure you, we will be incredibly successful."