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?

“Nobody could run a kitchen like Michael,” Bavas recalls. “You have 25 waitresses, no computers. Each waitress may have four tables. If somebody’s got a prime rib and an omelet and a sauté dish, you can’t make the omelet first and let it sit there and dry out. You gotta know when to call that order. Michael was the best of the best.”

Louis Bavas would tell his son Tom and Petrogiannis that someday they’d take over the place. But the old man held on, and Petrogiannis instead jumped to buy Littleton’s Diner on Ogontz Avenue. (It’s gone now.) And Tom Bavas, a general contractor today, swears this is true: “When Michael left, he said, ‘One day I’m gonna own every diner in Philadelphia.’”

BACK IN PETROGIANNIS’S SUV, on our tour, he turns on the radio, and it plays Greek music. He switches to a news station that, weirdly, has a report on Greece’s troubled economy. Soon we’re talking about money, too.

Fifteen years ago, Petrogiannis says, in the three-mile stretch of Street Road from I-95 to Route 1, there were 63 restaurants. “Now 150. Every place that opens up takes away two or three customers a week.” We’re talking about Wawa, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Applebee’s, Golden Corral.

So he has to hold the line on prices. But his costs are up, for oil, for seafood, for insurance. And his best customers, the ones who come every day, aren’t getting any younger. “Those old people are leaving us. They’re going up to see St. Peter,” he says. Business isn’t booming. And he hasn’t been immune to the brutal lifestyle of running a round-the-clock business. He frets. He says he doesn’t sleep well. He admits he didn’t see his two children enough when they were growing up.

It’s more than a month later when I see Petrogiannis again. A cook at the Melrose is on vacation, so the owner has decided to cook and prep for the week. He pours a pot of boiled potatoes into a massive colander, then into a mixing bowl with butter, white pepper, salt, hot milk. When the mixing machine is done, he lines up three chrome containers on a table, claps his hands, and gets out a big spoon to shovel the creamy potatoes into the containers. This is like vacation for him.

“How long is your shift?” I ask him when he’s done. “Long time. Thirty-seven years,” he says. I don’t know if he misunderstood the question or he’s joking. It works either way. And it brings up my next question: How much longer can he do this?

“I’ve got … 15 more years?” he wonders. After that, he’s not sure. “My daughter don’t wanna have nothing to do with it — she won’t even come here to eat.” His son Gus helps manage one of the Michael’s locations, but seems noncommittal about a future in diners. “I don’t think he knows what he wants. I told him to be here today — where he is?”