Jim Giftos & National Coney Island 8/24/07
Having a photo of a president or a superstar athlete inside your office may define a political bent or a franchise loyalty, but having a portrait of Anthony Quinn as Zorba defines a culture.
At least, that’s the opinion of Jim Giftos, owner of National Coney Island restaurants, now twenty outlets strong. Still youthful and powerful-looking himself, at sixty-nine Giftos has been in this country since the age of eight, but swells with Hellenic pride as he displays his prized Quinn painting. Anthony Quinn, himself a Mexican American, was perhaps best known for his title role in Zorba the Greek, a film which Giftos claims, “Put Greeks on the map for many Americans.”
Amid other photographs of family and friends, especially his father Tom who passed away in 1997 at the laudable age of 104. “I’m surrounded by my heroes,” he announces with a smile.
After forty-two years in the coney business, Giftos knows something about chili dogs. His first store, at the Macomb Mall in Roseville, was a streamlined, fifty-seat joint serving only hot dogs, chili, hamburgers, potato chips and soda. Today, with locations from Waterford to Grosse Pointe, he’s forged a reputation for excellent food, friendly service and community support in every city he’s laid brick and mortar. “There’s no secret but hard work and attention to detail,” he claims. “Use your head in business: people want quality, affordability, and a place that’s convenient.”
In some ways, the restaurant business is in his DNA: many Greeks, he points out, worked in short order outlets when they first arrived on American shores, many the result of family connections. “Most of us in the business today got our start at Lafayette Coney Island downtown; I washed dishes there when I was thirteen years old. I had a paper route as well; that’s the way we did it in those days. I was the first kid on my block to make the Little League team, but my dad looked at me like I was nuts. ‘You have to work,’ he said. That’s a lesson I’m glad I learned back then, and I hope my son Tommy—who’s the real brains of this operation these days, let me tell you—learned as well.”
In fact, Giftos never even met his father until he was eight, the consequence of World War II. The elder Giftos had moved to Detroit prior to the war, and was unable to send for his young family until the late forties. As a consequence, Jim grew up in a single-parent household in rural Pelopponese, Greece, and suffered the war-torn poverty that went along with it. By the time he made it across the ocean, on a harrowing seventeen day freighter journey, he was primed for an American Dream.
With National Coney Island, he’s found it, but he’s quick to point out that profit—however welcome—has never been the goal. Evidence is the charitable work the restaurant chain does for countless local causes including Karmanos Cancer Institute, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, St. John Hospital Men’s Guild and the Take a Lion To School program. Ever sensitive to folks less fortunate than himself, Giftos shows a Zorba-style pragmatism to his own life’s ups and downs:
“When all else fails, when you’re having a bad day, come home and put your troubles away. Dance,” he says.