At 15 years old, Gus Kanis approached the owner of Sofianos on West 117th for a job. "How old are you?" the owner asked.
"Sixteen," Kanis told him. That's how old everyone said he needed to be.
"Then he asked me for my birthday, and I told him the truth," he recalls. "He caught me."
Kanis' father had brought him to the U.S. from a small village four hours northeast of Athens, Greece. "We used to grow tobacco," he says. "We were a poor family. ... It was a big thing to come to America. What did I know, 15 years old, about America?"
Fortunately, the Sofianos owner's wife urged him to give Kanis a chance.
Kanis now owns The Place to Be Deli & Restaurant in Brook Park, following a path similar to that of many other Greek diner owners in Cleveland. Working at American restaurants offered something more than money: It was a chance to learn English and establish a career.
"There wasn't much opportunity to do anything else but to go work at somebody else's restaurant until you've established the language," says Kanis' nephew Pete Angelokostopoulos, who helps at Lakewood's The Place to Be on weekends. "You go learn to do things; the aspiration of owning your own business kicks in."
So Kanis owned a place called Simeons and then The Place to Be in Lakewood, which he sold to Pete's parents, Maria and Chris Angelokostopoulos, in 1992.
"The restaurants they were working in were not Greek," Pete says. "To make a Greek-style restaurant would have been a bit more difficult than to build something they were used to working in with eggs and regular food."
Still, you can find evidence of the owners' heritage on area diner menus. Chris, for example, makes his own tzatziki sauce for The Place to Be's heaping gyros, the diner's most popular item. Other diners serve up Greek tradition with moussaka (Diner on 55th) and baklava (Gus' Diner 185), and it's not unusual to find gyros in omelet or skillet form for breakfast.
Kanis' restaurant story did stray when he worked at Ford before opening Simeons, but he realized there was a better place for him.
"Ford, it was one of the top jobs, right? But it wasn't like a restaurant. At the restaurant, you're always with the people," he says. "Over the years, I never regret it."
The Place to Be Deli & Restaurant, 5751 Smith Road, Brook Park, 216-898-9141; The Place to Be, 1391 Warren Road, Lakewood, 216-226-8783