Columbus, Ohio USA
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A Slice of American Dream
Successful restaurateur restores Short North's Goody Boy Diner – and reaps the rewards
By Cynthia Rosi
Mar/Apr 2012 Issue

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The Velio family: wife Elenida, Velio’s mother Fetije, Jim Velio and sons (l to r) Everest, Erzen,
and toddler Flori. Photo © Larry Hamill

A diner is as American as apple pie, and the American Dream.

In Jim Velio, an Albanian who escaped Iron-Curtain Communism – first settling in Greece before immigrating to Columbus, Ohio – you can find all three.

In this deep recession, headlines question whether the American Dream still exists. But pull up a chair, order a piece of apple pie and talk to Michael’s Goody Boy diner’s Jim Velio – if you can catch him – and you’ll find the American Dream still functions for those willing to put in hard work and long hours.

Velio (known as Jimmy V in the local community) is not the first owner of Michael’s Goody Boy, but he has made the biggest impact on the neighborhood eatery since Michael Pappas built it and doors opened in 1947. Since doors closed for renovation in May 2009 until they reopened in October 2011, Velio put in $400k, plus his own labor and team of workers, to expand the 18-seat café into 94 seats indoors, with another 40 to 50 seats slotted for garden dining.

But a surface glance at this successful restaurateur, who owns – at last count – 10 dining premises and a portfolio of private and commercial properties, doesn’t do the man justice. To understand the person behind the Jimmy V’s chain, and the owner of Michael’s Goody Boy, you have to go back to his roots: to the Old Country.

Jim Velio grew up in a large village on the Adriatic coast in Albania under a communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. “We were anti-communist as a family,” he recalled, “so if you go to school it was very challenging for us. We were not allowed to go to higher level of schools. That frustrated me as a teenager because a guy that’s last, who was not better than me in school, ended up getting scholarships to go to universities, and I wasn’t allowed.”

By the time he was 17, Velio had learned his father’s trade as a builder and carpenter, and now keeps his father’s plane, a carpenter’s tool, displayed in his living room.

“I was building furniture, cabinets, doors; the hard work runs in our family,” he said. “We were taught that work – that is what keeps you above others; you make a better life for yourself through hard work.”

Velio excelled in math, yet he wasn’t allowed to progress to college. Instead, he was forced into military service.

“My father, he was put into prison for being anti-communist,” Velio recalled. “That made us work even harder to be able to have a better life. Before I go into the military, I made up my mind, the first chance I get I’m going to skip this country and get out of here – which I did. It was tough. Very tough.”

Some people crumble under difficult experiences, others fight harder. Velio’s in the latter category. He spotted his opportunity and ducked under the Iron Curtain for neighboring Greece. There he worked for three years, learned the language, and leapt at a chance to go to America in 1992 – the same year Albania completely freed itself from a communist regime, holding its first democratic elections.

Tommy’s Diner on West Broad Street gave Velio – who didn’t speak any English – a job washing dishes. He saved up, partnered with George Stefanidis, and bought his first restaurant 13 months later, the Easy Street Café (formerly Jaeger Street Café) in German Village.

“I was 24 years old and didn’t have credit – we gave them a down payment, and didn’t have enough to buy it free and clear, so we said, ‘when we open, we’ll pay you the rest’.” Velio smiled as he remembered that. “Every day, every night I was there from one to two o’clock in the morning, buying pieces, trying to put it together. When I opened that place with my partner, we were literally scratching the ashtrays of the car to buy our last packet of cigarettes,” Velio laughed. “We were as broke as could be!”

“If we had to wait one more month, we had nothing to eat. We were down to the last dollar. We were so broke that George had to tell his girlfriend to buy clothes that day so we could open. It was tough.”

Those early lessons of putting in long hours to achieve a goal stayed with Velio as he achieved success. He has not exchanged that hard-working kid for a cushy lifestyle. “I haven’t changed from that first restaurant to the 20th restaurant in town. Even today I left from Gahanna coming here – I was there building the booths, the tables, building the bar, building the stage, building the DJ booth. Before that, I opened this one [Michael’s Goody Boy], and here I was doing the same thing.”

Six months after opening the Easy Street Café, Velio bought his first residential property. “I was working in my restaurants during the day and come nine o’clock at night, I would go build and renovate apartments and rent them. The banks would not give me money, but when I started building equity and the market value of the properties went up, after that I was able to work with the banks. It was history after that.”

Then the guy got on a roll.

“There was five to six years straight I worked every day with no vacation. New Years day was half a day, and Christmas half a day, and the rest of the days it was every single day work. That’s how I built my equity. And any opportunities from restaurants – old people getting out, run-down restaurants, I’d get them, renovate them, and make them successful. Turn around, sell them, and go buy two more. Same thing with the properties. Sell one, go buy two more – or three more. Put a large down payment, buy doubles, four units, five units, ten units, commercials. I’m still doing it, and renovating those as much as I can.”

Photo © Larry Hamill

It could be that Jim Velio, and his indefatigable passion for hard work, has single-handedly restored a generous slice of the historic diners and restaurants of Columbus, Ohio, unwittingly preserving them for the city.

About 10 years ago, Velio came up with the concept of Jimmy V’s Grill and Pub. He opened the first one in German Village on South High Street. Building on the success of that idea, he bought the Red Door Tavern in Grandview, then Lulus. Now he owns four Jimmy V’s, Red Door, the Rack, the Main Bar, the Westerville Grill, Oties in Hilliard, Michael’s Goody Boy, and a Whiskey Ranch in Gahanna which will be turned into an American bar and grill. “Ten thousand square feet in Gahanna. What I’m doing there will be the talk of the town,” he grinned.

Michael’s Goody Boy began with Michael Pappas, who acquired it in 1947. George Stambedakis bought the restaurant in 1977. In 2000, Velio bought the restaurant from George, but let John Trokas operate it as a front man, with the option that John could buy him out. However, John didn’t make a go of the business, and the Health Department shut him down. Velio stepped in to reclaim the property and renovate it.

George Stambedakis, now an elderly gentleman, was born in Greece. He joined the Merchant Marines and traveled all over the world as a cook. George’s aunt brought him to Mount Vernon, Ohio. “I stayed there for four years and became a U.S. citizen. Then I moved to Columbus.”

Despite other accounts, George says he was no relation to Mike Pappas. “I bought it when I was single and then became married. I had an apartment next door.” The diner created a good living for George and his family. “I liked cooking food. I loved the customers and they loved me too. It was very smooth running.

“People liked the macaroni and cheese, the meatloaf and salads. Customers would give us Christmas gifts – my waiters and me. The food is pretty much the same and very good. Jimmy has done a great job.”

Jack Price, 75, has owned Vintage Pens for 30 years, a shop now located in Clintonville, specializing in fountain pen sales and repair, typewriters, and other 20th century memorabilia. From 1980-1986, Vintage Pens operated in the Short North, and Jack ate many a happy meal at the Goody Boy.

“George Stambedakis was the owner then,” Price recalled. “He could cook for 200-300 people and then that makes restaurant cooking very easy.

“They were very friendly. That was one of the nice things about the Goody Boy. George was always glad to see me and very gracious. The waitresses were very sweet too. I remember Aggie – I really liked her.”

One of the waitresses, who would have served Jack, was Liska “Shag” Latham, who died in 1999 at Kobacker House after battling cancer. Shag managed Michael’s Goody Boy for 25 years, and counted George and his family as dear friends in her obituary.

Price’s favorite meal was the chicken dinner, but he also liked the cheese sandwich. “If I had time I would schmooze a bit,” he recalled. “I used to bring in a lot of people with me to eat too. They had good coffee and good pies. My favorite was cherry pie.”

One fond memory Price has about the Goody Boy was a brief interaction with another customer. “About the time they started making a big fuss about second-hand smoke, there was a lot of publicity. I was in Michael’s Goody Boy one day and all of a sudden a man next to me takes out a cigarette and lights it up. I turned to him and said “Do you mind, I’m eating?”

Immediately he put his cigarette out and did not make a fuss about it and finished eating. He was very gracious.”

George Stambedakis purchased the Goody Boy Diner in 1977 from Michael Pappas and ran it for 23 years before selling it to Jim Velio in 2000. Photo © Cynthia Rosi

Price didn’t much like the original owner, Michael Pappas, who he recalls as being “…real persnickety. If you did something he didn’t like he would yell at you. One time I parked in the lot to go to an antique store and he came out and screamed at me and made a real fuss.

“George – he did not mind – people pulled in all the time to go to other stores and he never said anything about it. He’s a very nice man.”

After the Health Department shut down Michael’s Goody Boy, Velio determined to get it back into shape. “I decided to renovate and bring this place back to life. It was completely old. So I worked with the Italian Village Commission to design and add more square footage to the building. There were only 18 seats here. Now there are 94 seats without the garden, and 40-50 more with the garden.

“With good weather this place will be jamming. It’s done; we just have to bring furniture, gates and chairs, some hardware. I wanted to keep the Michael’s Goody Boy, the history, that old sign – there’s a picture of that sign at Columbus Airport,” Velio said.

“Since I opened I do even have old customers still coming here. When I tell them what they ate seven to ten years ago they are surprised I remember. But that’s how we operate – go from customer to customer, table to table – that’s how we bring them back. In this business you have to have that – if you’re not good with people…very soon they are going to realize that you are not who they want to see.”

Velio has been back to Albania to get married, and bring over his mother, fulfilling a promise to his father that he’d look after her. Now he has a young family, and his wife Elenida lends her creative touch, making delicious baklava and tiramisu for the restaurants.

“I got to Greece through a lot of hard work,” Velio reflected. “It made a better life out of me, and I was able to find my way to the United States which I believed was the only country where democracy made sense. The rest of those countries – all the communist countries – was corruption.”

By the time Velio had begun working flat-out renovating restaurants and properties, Albania’s fledgling democracy faced its first serious challenge. Massive pyramid schemes toppled the fragile economy in 1997, and Albanians fled into France, England, and the rest of Europe, seeking stability and new opportunity. By then, Velio was well on his way to becoming an established businessman in the United States.

“It was tough for Albanians all around – even the education in Albania was dictated to, you could not even learn a foreign language,” Velio said of his childhood under communism. “They kept people disconnected from television, from news, newspapers. You couldn’t imagine what was going on in the outside world. They said America was the worst country.”

A diner, a slice of apple pie with coffee, Mom helping out with the grandkids at home, a wife that works in the business, and a string of restaurants where you can point to the tables, the bar, and describe how you built them – that’s someone who lives the American Dream.

This country has worked out for Jim Velio, and in turn, he’s benefited tired old diners and restaurants in Columbus with re-fits and facelifts.

“Food competition is tough as it is and that keeps the best in the game,” Velio asserted. “Not just the quality of food, but the service, caring for the customer. That is part of my character, working hard, caring about my customers and my workers, that has kept me this long in the game, and having this many places and operating.

“In the worst time in the economy, last year alone I opened three places,” he paused. “Let me thank my customers for supporting me.”

Cynthia Rosi is a Freelance Writer

© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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