Meet “Little Pete,” the Man Who Could Lose His Diner for a Butt-Ugly Hotel

Peter Koutroubas talks about trying to keep his business open, working seven days a week, and why exactly he’s called “Little Pete.”

Photos: sign by Arthur Etchells; portrait by Claudia Gavin

Photos: sign by Arthur Etchells; portrait by Claudia Gavin

What did you think when you heard that developers want to put a fancy hotel on 17th Street where the original Little Pete’s is located?
I was upset. I don’t want to leave, but that’s the way life works.

There was an outpouring of love and grief from fans of Little Pete’s when they heard the news.
Everybody loves us. We’ve been there 37 years. People grew up there, bring their kids there.

One of the regular customers of Little Pete’s is Mayor Nutter. You ever think about ringing him up to pull a few strings to save the diner?
Nutter, he’s a customer, he comes there, but …

You don’t want to take advantage?

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson delayed the bill to rezone the property for a hotel. Do you hope the reprieve will last?
I don’t know. It’s up to them [the developers]. Everybody wants us to stay there, but that’s them.

When did you come over from Greece?
I came here on my birthday: June 16, 1972. I was 13, I turned 14.

What did you think of Philadelphia at that point?
I didn’t like it at all.

Why not?
The humidity. Hot. Nowhere to swim. We came from poor family, but a beautiful house: The water’s right there, you swim every day, you know? Here, the water was foul. The first two years was hard. It became easier after that.

When did you start Little Pete’s?
In 1978. I was young. I wanted to open my own place. I knew how to cook a little bit. Plus my mother was helping out, and she was a really good cook. I just turned 20 when I opened the business.

How hard is it to run a diner?
The first two years, there was no day off. It was six in the morning to 12 at night. The store is very small there. You have two cooks, two servers, and a cashier and a dishwasher. You make money. The store was so good because it was small, and with very little employees, you were busy 24 hours. When people see people, they stay there. When the place is full, they say, “Something’s good there,” you know what I mean? When the place is big and it’s empty — smaller is better.

You still spend quite a bit of time behind the grill.
Every day, I come here three in the morning. I do all my dressings, all my sauces, everything. I leave here from one, two o’clock. I go home for an hour, then I come back for dinnertime, nine, 10 o’clock. Seven days a week.

Couldn’t you take a break?
I’m looking to teach somebody. But it’s hard to find somebody. I have a big menu here. But pretty soon I’m going to try to teach somebody, then take a little break, then open my own little — seat like 40, 50 people — my own Mediterranean open kitchen. Fish, couple steaks, couple sautés, a couple of different salads. You come in, you don’t know what’s going to be on the menu.

You’ve had a few famous people come through the diner.
Lots of movie stars have been there. Joe Frazier, for a while he was there almost every other day. He was a good man.

How did you get the name “Little Pete”?
I used to work at the Eagle II diner as a busboy. I was this tall. [He’s five-foot-three.] The owner was like six-foot-three, and they had a manager was pretty big, too. They used to call us “Big Pete,” “Middle Pete” and “Little Pete.” I guess I was Little Pete.

Originally published as “We Want Answers: “Little Pete” Koutroubas” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.