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Pappas', long a restaurant icon, closes

The Tarpon Springs landmark shuts down abruptly and leaves 70 employees out of work.

Published September 13, 2005

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
The Pappas' Riverside Restaurant that closed Monday in Tarpon Springs was built in 1975 at the Sponge Docks.

TARPON SPRINGS - It was the birthplace of Greek-salad-with-potato-salad-on-the-bottom.

In its heyday, its 1,000-seat dining room was filled to capacity.

But Monday, Pappas' Riverside Restaurant closed, putting 70 employees out of work and ending service at a restaurant that had become a landmark.

The restaurant's owners announced in a statement that the business has closed, to be redeveloped as a mixed-use project. They have been working on the plans for more than a year, they said.

Former owner Jack Pappas, son of the restaurant's founder, Louis M. Pappas, said three of the restaurant's employees told him they were told to turn in their keys at an employee meeting.

"To tell you the truth, yes, I expected it to happen because the food wasn't up to par and the service wasn't up to par," said Pappas, 75, who previously owned the restaurant with his two brothers. "They deviated against the original Pappas menu, and it just didn't work."

Louis Pappas, a Greek immigrant, started the restaurant in 1925.

Its current building, built in 1975, was purchased for about $5.5-million three years ago from the Pappas brothers by three families. One owner, Jimmy Melissas, is a second cousin to the Pappas family. The other owners included Melissas' wife, Maria, Michael and Maria Kastrenakes and James and Mia Boutzoukas.

Located at the entrance to the Sponge Docks, the massive restaurant demanded notice from visitors to Tarpon Springs.

But Monday's statement said business has been on a downhill slide since the mid 1990s.

Two fires the last two years in the heating-cooling system forced the restaurant to close for repairs. Utility costs rose to 20 percent of operating costs, the statement said. Combined with rising payroll and general costs, keeping Pappas' open was untenable, according to the owners.

"The bottom line is it's difficult for them to cover their expenses," said Mayor Beverley Billiris. "They don't fill it to capacity at lunchtime anymore."

Pappas' closing was no surprise to Billiris, either. She had heard rumblings for the past six months, she said.

"Everybody was hoping it would make the turn or could survive because nobody wanted to see Pappas' restaurant go away," she said.

The owners came to her a month ago with an informal proposal of a multiuse development. She said there was talk of a development with shops, restaurants, a hotel and convention center. Billiris said she suggested the owners share their suggestions with the board of commissioners by the end of the month.

The proposed project will be a mixed-use development on the 2 waterfront acres that will include a scaled-down version of Pappas' restaurant, according to the statement, which did not give details on what would be built or when the project would be completed.

Billiris said the owners told her they wanted to build up to 75 feet in height. Although Pappa's restaurant got a conditional-use approval for a building 75 feet tall in the past, the city's codes allow buildings only up to three stories in most areas and four stories in some parts of the city.

The owners told Billiris there were creative ways of making 75 feet not look so tall. She told them to come to the commission with a model to show that. No formal plans have been filed, nor a time line for the redevelopment.

"They said they have a proposal that even I would like and I said, I hope it's creative," Billiris said. "I'm not a proponent of 75 feet anywhere in my city."

Billiris said the closing of Pappas' Riverside is a sad day for Tarpon Springs. She described the restaurant as one of the community's landmarks, and her introduction to Greek food.

She recalled sampling conch salad and turtle soup there for the first time.

"I really liked the conch salad," she said.

And the turtle soup?

"It was different."

But of late, Billiris said she couldn't help but notice the empty seats at lunch.

"I think it would always be missed," she said. "Somehow turning that corner and not seeing Pappas' restaurant would be hurtful and will be hurtful for a long time."

[Last modified September 13, 2005, 01:45:22]

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