The re-opening of Pappas was like a scene from the film Big Night. In Benicia, brothers Nicholas and Andreas Anastasios have invested everything in their Greek family restaurant. It’s their lifeblood. But the brothers haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, and the business has been suffering. Like the movie, they get their big chance, and on this one night they risked everything to save their life’s work.
The Big Night for Pappas restaurant was January 25, and the family drama wasn’t revealed on the silver screen, it was broadcast nationwide on the Food Network’s reality TV show, Restaurant: Impossible. The show’s star, Chef Robert Irvine, uses sheer grit and tough love to save restaurants across the country on the brink of failure. In just 48 hours and $10,000, he overhauls the business. At Pappas, he tossed the confusing menus, created a fresh Greek ambiance and confronted the brothers’ debilitating rivalry.
The boys’ father, Anastasios Papunastasios, now known as Michael, comes from a long line of farmers on the island of Cypress. Michael, 77, has owned and operated Pappas with his two sons for nearly 22 years. It was his eldest son Nicholas who first dreamed of running a restaurant.
Michael’s middle child Michaela is grateful for the experience, but felt Irvine could have been more respectful to her father. “I just hope people will judge us based on their personal experience and not by what they see on television. Reality TV is not real. They needed to create conflict and drama,” she said.
But for the brothers, the rift was real: “We weren’t working as a team,” said Andreas. “We developed hard feelings, and you don’t always take the high road when you are family.” The show woke them up, he said. “We were holding each other back, and it was time to grow up.”
It wasn’t just tension between the boys that hurt the business. The restaurant had lost its Mediterranean roots and the menu was unwieldy. The food was pre-packaged, and quality suffered. They weren’t keeping up with technology, the costs of permits and food were going up, and they were $1 million in debt. Without telling the family, Andreas’s wife Lori submitted an online application for the reality TV show. “We would not go down without a fight,” she said.
In the film Big Night, the legendary jazz artist Louis Prima is supposed to arrive with his band and make the restaurant a draw, but he never shows up. For Pappas, Irvine showed up in a big way.
“This restaurant would have closed in less than a month,” said Irvine to the crowd. “That’s’ the truth. The lifestyle changes this family has made in the past 48 hours are dramatic,” he said. “You can talk to any one of the family members and they will tell you just how real it is. It’s real!” He also asked that the community be patient with them.
It took the courage of Greek Gods for the Anastasios family to let the TV crew zoom in on their most vulnerable moments. “At first I was really nervous, thinking, what have I done wrong?” Andreas said. “When you realize they are going to be exposing every little thing, you begin to question yourself.” But, as his brother Nicholas described, “We learned more in two days than we did in eight years.”
On the eve of the re-opening, Nicholas worked late with one of Irvine’s chefs. The pro shared that his secret to success was to hire the most talented people, and let them shine. “That opened my eyes,” said Nicholas. “I never thought of it that way before. I always felt like I had to be the best at everything.”
Pappas had about 15 top chefs in the kitchen on the Big Night including consultant Patrick Robertson, who was later hired as their Executive Chef and is now working with the family to land on a menu that is modern Mediterranean without breaking the bank. All meals are cooked fresh and the dinner menu is streamlined to include specialties like Lamb Spanikopita and fresh Branzino. Nicholas took the role of General Manager, and Andreas is now the Kitchen Expeditor, making sure all dishes are served perfectly. To meet the increase in business, they are now open Mondays.
The Anastasios family is overwhelmed by the community’s show of support. Volunteers appeared from as far as New Mexico and Maine to lend a hand, and dozens of Benicians stayed up most of the night to scrub, paint and rebuild. “Knowing how much they did to help reenergizes us,” said Andreas.
As for the brothers, their wounds won’t heal in a day, but they are making peace with their differences and facing the real world—as family.