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Peter Gianakura reflects on 100 years living the American dream

'An American Cafe: Reflections From The Grill' author has learned never to take a single moment for granted 

Happy belated 100th birthday to An American Cafe: Reflections From The Grill author Peter Gianakura, born in Sault Ste. Marie on March 25, 1922. 

Uncle Sam and Father Chris Gianakura traveled from Greece, docking in New York City around the turn of the 20th century. 

“America was a dream with its ‘streets paved in gold and money hanging from trees,’” Peter Gianakura wrote in a spiral notebook. 

Stepping foot on its soil, “reality hit them.” Cultivating life from the nation’s fertile ground would take a lot of work, neither were shy. 

“Entrepreneurship was in their blood, and America was the place,” Gianakura said. There were language and cultural barriers to overcome, even differences in food. 

While many immigrants settled along the east coast, the duo headed north to work at a tannery in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. 

Gianakura pondered over why his uncle and father chose to build lives in the Soo, undoubtedly crediting them for a lifetime of happiness in “God’s Country.” 

The best way in and out of Sault Ste. Marie in 1903 was by train or boat. Of course, travelers would forget snacks, tobacco or beverages enroute to various destinations. 

“One Sunday afternoon they took a walk down Portage Avenue,” said Gianakura. “They noticed a small business place for sale and decided to rent it.” 

Soon thereafter, a little convenience shop popped up. The brothers set out to make a victorious impression, stocking every shelf full for their first customers. A giant golden eagle in flight was painted on its front out of “respect and love” for their adoptive country. 

“This little place was their beginning in the world of free enterprise in a free country,” wrote Gianakura.

Sam traveled to Chicago where he learned to make peanut brittle, chocolate and taffy. This would be just the expansion the “American Ice Cream Parlor and Confectionery” needed. The store’s “velvet” ice cream” was said to be smooth and rich. 

“Farmers brought milk and cream to their confectionery in five-gallon, galvanized metal containers,” Gianakura wrote. “There were endless bottles, all brown, that contained food coloring and flavorings of all sorts. The ice cream was sold on premises in sodas, sundaes, floats, malted milk and milk shakes. When the ice cream cone was introduced in the Soo at the shop, people would lick the ice cream out of the cone and throw the cone away. My father and uncle had to teach them that the cone was edible.” 

Business was going well. One afternoon, an ominous man appeared in front of the store. He would linger around and return the next day. 

“My uncle got curious after three days,” said Gianakura. “He went to talk to the man and asked, ‘Why are you here?’” 

The man said he was monitoring the store’s activity. Within six months, all businesses on the Ashmun and Portage Street corner were asked to leave due to new ownership. 

The uprooted business moved nine times over the years. “At one point the brothers had two businesses going simultaneously,” Gianakura wrote. 

The year was 1930 and the Soo Theatre was under construction, built top to bottom over a single winter. 

“The nine locations brought them closer and closer to the spreading business community which in its final phase became known as The American Cafe in the center of town on Ashmun Street,” Gianakura said. 

He would eventually take over the family business, marry Georgia and raise three daughters: Catherine, Joy and Anastasia. 

“Our Papa would come home from work every evening with a cheerful whistle announcing his arrival. We would drop whatever we were doing and run to the back door shouting, ‘Papa's home! Papa's home!’ After he gathered his kisses from his daughters, he would sit peacefully for the first time that day and eat his dinner at the special seat always reserved for him – Pre-set awaiting his arrival. Most days we had already eaten our dinner, but we would join him at the table and wait with anticipation for “the list.” “The list” was a small piece of paper which would peek out of our Papa's shirt

pocket that was filled with special anecdotes, stories and ideas that filled his day. He would begin his meal, pull out “the list” and deliver a delicious array of stories. Each one made you hungrier for more.” – Anastasia Gianakura Stacey, Tales from the Table. 

If he had intentions of doing anything other than running that business for 43 years, no one would have known. He worked with a smile. He always took Sundays off to spend with his family. 

All three girls attended Central Michigan University and went on to have families of their own, making many grandchildren to carry on the legacy. 

Still, the restless dreams of a journalist haunted Gianakura’s mind. 

“I was in high school when I took a course in journalism,” said Gianakura. “My journalism teacher came up to me and said, ‘Peter, I think you should consider journalism.’” 

Gianakura had every intention of doing so when he graduated in 1940, but America entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941. 

“The next thing I know, I was in the service for four and a half years,” said the U.S. Army Medical Corps veteran. “When the war ended, I was discharged.” 

Gianakura attended university for a couple months before helping his father full-time at the store. 

“Father was about 70-years-old and the restaurant was demanding,” said Gianakura. “I told him, ‘Papa…’ that’s what we call our dads in Greece. I said, ‘Papa, enjoy life.’ He said, ‘If I retire I will die. This is my life.’” 

Chris Gianakura lived to be 88-years-old, passing away after a stroke in 1961. His brother preceded him in death several years prior in 1927. 

Running the family business meant Gianakura would have to leave childish dreams behind, or simply revert back to childish ways. 

Gianakura was 11 when he began helping his papa in the kitchen. 

“I would see customers and waitresses,” said Gianakura. “Every so often, I would notice things of interest and make little notes. I always carried a pen or pencil to make notes.

When I got home, I would elaborate on these things. I expounded upon them. After a few years, I developed seven or eight spiral notebooks like that.” 

The American Cafe owner did this for over four decades. 

When his eldest daughter, Catherine, came to visit one day she found the books. She asked to take them with her. 

“I always said, ‘when I leave this earth, I should share them,” said Gianakura. 

Catherine went out the door with the random anecdotes and thoughts of a restaurant owner. 

In 2009, Gianakura accomplished his lifelong dream of becoming a writer when Catherine published her father’s stories. 

“Where she found the time to take my notes and create a story, I don’t know,” Gianakura said. “She did that within a year. She mailed in the manuscript. I am shocked at how she was able to do that.” 

Shortly after, Gianakura asked Sault Printing to make copies. 

“I asked them if I could sign and sell the book, which I did,” said Gianakura of his first ever book signing at the Soo Theatre. “I was surprised that we had a long line of people.” 

In and out-of-towners showed up to meet a Sault Ste. Marie author. Many reflected on certain stories told in the book, like “Marge,” “Smokers,” and “Paul Harvey, Good Day.” 

Gianakura shared a rather humorous story from his boyhood. 

“One Sunday afternoon, a customer ordered a hot sandwich,” he said. “I was 11 and had never made gravy. I opened the fridge and saw a jar. It looked like gravy. I microwaved it and poured it over the sandwich. He took one bite, called me over and said, ‘Peter, try this.’ I took a spoonful and it was sweet. Come to find out, it was butterscotch in a jar that father had used for butterscotch sundaes. It looked like the texture of gravy.” 

While memory is seemingly intact, Gianakura said 100 years has made him tired.

“Six months ago, I started taking naps,” he said. “I never did that, but lately I find myself getting sleepy. My daughters tell me it’s the age. My body gets tired sooner than normal.” 

In his freetime, Gianakura watches his favorite television shows and enjoys the outdoors. 

“My daughter and I took a walk in the late fall,” said Gianakura. “It was wonderful. We went to the nature center in Grand Rapids. We sat on a bench and didn’t say a word for 30 minutes. I could hear birds; I could hear wind rustling; and leaves talking to each other. I saw squirrels and woodchuck galloping all over the place. Mother nature has a lot to behold. We take a lot of good things for granted. They are not meant to be taken for granted; they are blessings.” 

These are lessons he has passed on to his own children and grandchildren. 

In honor of both her parents, Catherine created the Peter and Georgia Gianakura Endowment. They are two separate scholarships for Lake Superior State students seeking journalistic and mathematics careers. 

At the time of Mrs. Gianakura’s high school graduation, she had sought to attend Michigan State University for mathematics. Instead, her father became ill and she tended to the family. 

Since the couple was unable to pursue their individual dreams, they built one together, as read in An American Cafe: Reflections From The Grill.

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Sara Eisinger

About the Author: Sara Eisinger

An award-winning journalist, Sara is proud to be a new resident of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan.
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