Tom Pappas’s father owned the general store in their small village outside of Sparta, a position that also meant he was the acting Post Master for the community. The actual delivery of packages and correspondence fell to his young son. It was this early experience, of rushing from door-to-door with the mail, that Tom credits for inspiring his almost super human ability to remember people’s names.
“And the people who would tip me,” he says, cocking his head to the side, eyes sparkling with an abundance of life and not-a-small amount of mischief, “the people who would tip would get their mail a little faster.”
From an early age Tom found success by nurturing personal connections with the people in his community while providing impeccable and speedy service. It doesn’t take Pythia to see that he would find great success in the restaurant business. That his Ithaca was in Columbus, Ohio was something a bit more obscured by the mists of fate.
Tom left home at 12, moving to the fabled city of Sparta to attend boarding school. It was there that he learned to cook for himself and the value of hard work. “Homework back then was four to five hours a day,” he says, “And school was six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and every Sunday we would have to go back to the school to clean and do chores and then go to church.”
After finishing school and trying his hand at work in his native Greece, Tom felt that he was limited in what he could achieve at home. Like so many immigrants he says it was opportunity more than anything that stirred his desire to move to America. “Everybody looks for opportunity, you know what I’m saying? And for us the opportunity was hard work.”
After immigrating to the US in 1977, Tom was married to Kathy Pappas, nee Stefanidis, another American transplant who immigrated at age three. Kathy’s hospitality pedigree runs deep and was nurtured from an early age, “My family had restaurants in Boston where I grew up and I loved to go there and act like I was working with them.”
After moving the family to Columbus, Kathy’s father became an early partner in Jolly Pirate Donuts, the storied local chain. “My father ran the donut shop, and when we got married Tom started with the business. But eventually, we wanted something with less hours. Something where we could work together.”
And that’s how in 1989, with their two young sons Louie and Mike in tow, Tommy’s Diner was born.
Located on West Broad Street in Franklinton, Tommy’s Diner has become an institution in the Columbus restaurant scene. But starting out, things were much humbler. When asked about why they chose Franklinton as the home of their fledgling business Tom is quick to answer. “We were looking everywhere for a restaurant, and eventually a family friend said, ‘Hey! I’ve got a restaurant for rent for $300 a month, fully furnished.’” The original restaurant was a drive-in; today, Tommy’s Diner has retained much of the original drive-in aesthetic. “And it needed a lot of work, but we said what the hell. And $300 back then was a lot of money to us. That was more than our car payment. But we thought we didn’t have anything to lose and we said let’s give it a shot. Kathy was working at the insurance company and I would be at the restaurant. When we started, she would bring the money to the house and I’d bring the food!” smiles Tom.
“It was slow at first,” Kathy recalls, “People were afraid to come into the restaurant and it took us a couple of years to change the perception of the place. But there was a large manufacturing presence in the neighborhood at the time. Lots of blue collar jobs on McKinley Avenue, and eventually those people became our first loyal customers.”
Their eldest son, Louie, remembers what Franklinton was like in those early days at the restaurant. “It was definitely rough. I can remember times walking into the restaurant and mom would be carrying a baseball bat. Legitimately there was a lot of bad stuff going on. Franklinton in the late 80’s and early 90’s makes the neighborhood of today look like the Short North.”
During their sixth-year, things started to come together for Tommy’s. The consensus, from customers and critics alike, was that something special was going on at the strange little diner in Franklinton. “Louie and Mike grew up in the restaurant,” remembers Kathy.“Weekends they would help out in the kitchen. Every school break, every holiday, they were there. But it was their daddy’s dream to send them to college.”
“To be politicians!” Louie interjects.
“To do something! Anything else. Nothing to do with restaurants!” says Tommy, laughing because he knows how the story ends.
“We were working 80 or 90 hours a week,” says Kathy. “We didn’t necessarily want the boys to have that same life. But obviously, if you’re successful with something, it doesn’t matter what you do. It takes hard work.”
And by 1998, almost ten years into their life as a restaurant family, all that hard work was paying off. Tommy’s was booming, thanks in part to its come-as-you-are-attitude and its reputation as being just as popular with local politicians and lawmakers as it was with the blue-collar guys of Franklinton.
As the end of that year drew closer, the family, along with Kathy’s sister, were poised to open Milo’s, their second restaurant, an East Coast inspired deli that would find initial success with the suit and tie set, and later as a caterer. Milo’s was opened, at least in part, to help alleviate some of the overflow from the increasingly popular Tommy’s.
And then, on Saturday November 8, 1998, at 7 AM, with a packed dining room of devoted breakfast customers, Tommy’s Diner caught fire. A grease fire behind an antiquated hood vent would burn out of control, eventually consuming much of the original Tommy’s kitchen. As the family recalls the incident there are still traces of the trauma of the event visible on their faces.
As customers realized that the restaurant they loved was on fire, Tom remembers that people began to “grab memorabilia and picture from the walls, trying to save whatever they could.” And despite the imminent danger, he says that people left cash on their tables to pay their bills and that countless diners offered to act as witnesses in the inevitable insurance battle.
Even though its clearly still difficult to talk about, Kathy relives the family’s feelings during that time. “It took us so many years, and we were excited because Tommy’s was finally starting to do well. It was tough. Everything felt
dark and gloomy. When you walk into the restaurant, it’s always been so bright, so full of life. But when we would go in after the fire, the feeling was so different. We spent more time there as a family than we did at home. It was like losing a loved one.”
It took seven months to complete the reconstruction of Tommy’s Diner, but like the legendary phoenix, the new diner rose from the ashes better and more resplendent than before. The family was able to upgrade much of the restaurant, including significant parts of the dining room. This remodel ushered in much of the Americana aesthetic we so closely associate with the diner today. But rather than force it, Tommy’s 2.0 went through a more organic decorating process. “We had a customer who owned a restoration company,” says Louie, “and he is the one who brought us the vintage gas pumps.”
Kathy recalls the role other guests played in reshaping the restaurant. “People would find things in their houses, things from the neighborhood. Photographs and stuff– the cheerleader’s sweater from Central High School with the girl’s name on it… things like that. Every time somebody would bring something in, it would go on the wall. In that way, our customers helped re-build Tommy’s and turn it into what it is. And they are still bringing stuff to this day.”
“We got a basement that’s completely full of pictures!” laughs Tommy, “so we have to rotate. Make sure everyone gets their place on the wall!”
This notion that there is a place for everyone, no matter how mighty or how humble, is the most American thing about Tommy’s Diner. More than the photos or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, more than the vintage license plates and illustrations of muscle cards, it is the feeling of unconditional hospitality and egalitarian service that gives Tommy’s its All-American spirit.
The ability and desire to deliver this brand of hospitality is apparently genetic. During their college years, both Louie and Mike considered leaving the family business and pursuing careers in other areas, but always found themselves drawn back to the restaurant, working summer breaks and holidays.
Mike, the younger brother, remembers feeling an especially strong pull to leave the family business. “We both went to school and thought about going into something else, some other line of work, and I told myself that I was determined to do something away from restaurants. But at the same time, my brother and I would talk about starting a project together. We were hot and cold and hot and cold, but finally, in 2014 we pulled the trigger.”
That year Louie, who was by then an official owning partner at Milo’s, and Mike opened Kraft House 5 in Powell, the northern ‘burbs acclaimed gastropub. “We wanted to do something unique, especially up here on the north end of town,” explains Mike. “Restaurants like Kraft House, you see them in the Short North, Grandview, German Village. On the Northside, from what we saw, there were so many chain restaurants, so we wanted something unique, something different. That’s how we ended up with a gastropub– we wanted to take familiar food and put a new twist on it.”
“And our chef, Chris Torres,” add Louie, “Chris understands our concept, understands what Powell wants. We think he’s putting out the best version of Kraft House yet.”
Carried on by the success of Kraft House, the brothers Pappas launched Graze in 2015, a reimagining of Milo’s catering services both at the Ohio Statehouse and Mettler-Toledo International Inc. The concept, which they call “farm-to-counter,” brings fine dining techniques to traditional institutional food service, all based around chef-inspired market plates and salads.
Upcoming plans for the younger generation include a new venture at an undisclosed location. When pressed for details about the project, Mike responds with the same enthusiasm and life displayed by his father.
“It’s going to be a diner,” he exclaims, noticeably pleased to be bringing the family culinary tradition full circle.