The King of the Philly Diner

Greek-born Michael Petrogiannis has built a mini-empire snapping up landmarks like the Melrose and the Mayfair. But is he saving our diners? Or sucking the soul out of them?

Petrogiannis’s diners aren’t likely to succeed by going too foodie. His customers are still mostly working-class, more Parx than Parc. Yet his diners were changing before he ever took the keys, and this is how Petrogiannis might qualify as more of a preservationist than you think. Each diner he procured was well on the way to not being the place we remembered, because the families that owned them (the Kubachs at the Melrose, the Perloffs at the Country Club) simply ran out of heirs to the griddle who were prepared to take over. Jack Mulholland and his brother and sister — the second generation running the Mayfair — had nine grown children who might have stepped up. All nine said no thanks. “They saw how we were killing ourselves every day,” Mulholland says. “They just were interested in pursuing a normal lifestyle.”

Tom Bavas, whose parents, Louis and Maria, opened the Tiffany in 1980, says his father worked constantly — sometimes sleeping at the diner. Holidays were family workdays; Louis Bavas closed once on Christmas and vowed never to do it again. “Once, we went on vacation to Arizona,” Tom says. “We never even saw the Grand Canyon. My dad wanted to go see a diner.”

Statistics say that just 12 percent of family businesses are viable into a third generation. Kids raised in diner families have more options today, just like everybody else. And parents often don’t mind cashing out. “If you own a diner on a lot that’s big enough for a CVS, there’s your retirement,” says Randy Garbin. Last year, a beloved Staten Island diner called the Country Club (not related) became a Walgreens.

Petrogiannis acknowledges his place in the food chain. “The kids don’t want it — who we gonna call?” he says. “We’ll call Michael.”

DESPITE HIS FONDNESS for look-at-me red roofs, Petrogiannis isn’t crying for attention. “Why do you want to write about me? I’m nobody,” he said before agreeing to give a tour of his empire. He checks nearly all his restaurants every day anyway. One thing about a neighborhood diner is that sometimes you get to see the owner, and he does his best to be in nine places at once. So we walk through dining rooms and kitchens. Petrogiannis opens freezers and storage rooms, revealing meats, cakes, produce. “Clean,” he beams. “Nice.” He introduces me to age-old waitresses, bakers, line cooks, jokes with them, tells a few what to do.

Next to the Melrose counter, he asks a manager to cut some frayed strands from the carpet.

“See this rug? A month and a half old,” she says.

“What, do you want it to look new? That means no business!” he says.