The man behind Frank's
by Jo Mathis
Behind the modern glass facade of Frank's Restaurant on Maynard is a good old-fashioned diner as popular for the man behind the grill as for the good grub he turns out.
Pete Poulos, seventy-four, cooks every bite served in this feel-good place. He works seven days a week, fifty weeks a year. "Pete is a destination for people who know where he is," says customer Steve Krogness, whose screen saver is a picture he took of Poulos at his grill. "And if you find him, consider it serendipity. Because you walk in, and you get so much more than just a meal. You get friends."
Regulars weren't surprised last November when their favorite diner was chosen for two scenes in the movie Trust, directed by former Friends star David Schwimmer. It seemed natural, too, that while actor Clive Owen sat by the window, Poulos "played" the hardworking cook in the background.
"We heard about David Schwimmer every day for a month," says Poulos's daughter Julie Williams. She says the director repeatedly told her dad how much he loved the place.
Nothing at Frank's has changed in decades, and that's the way the regulars--who write their names on their favorite stools at the counter--like it.
"You walk fifty paces back in time when you walk in to Frank's," says Krogness.
Architect Richard Fry eats at Frank's once a week--hash browns smothered in vegetable oil, with four links of sausage and two eggs over easy. He describes Poulos as "one of those guys with the great ability to make you feel more important...than you really are.
"It's always you and not him," he adds, noting Poulos's amazing recall of his customers' families and activities.
But most customers know little about Poulos--because he rarely talks about himself.
Panagiotis Eliopoulos grew up in a small village called Kakouri. In 1939, when he was four years old, his father, a food distributor, drove his truck more than 100 miles to Athens, where he became sick with pneumonia. His body was
returned in a casket.
Life got even harder very quickly.
"In 1940, there was the big Depression and then the war," Poulos recalls in his thick Greek accent. "My mom was struggling. I was hungry."
His mother raised and sold vegetables to support her four children. She also got help from her late husband's cousin, Angelo Poulos, who at the time owned the Michigan Theater and the Allenel Hotel in Ann Arbor. But that lifeline was cut, and she lost her savings, when first Italy and then Germany invaded Greece.
"My mother was strong," Pete Poulos says. "She told us the best things in life are to be honest and love and don't expect anything from anybody and just keep working hard. Which is what I've done these last fifty years."
In 1952, knowing no English and carrying one suitcase, Poulos sailed to the United States. He arrived at Ellis Island, where, at his uncle's suggestion, he shortened his name. Then he moved in with an aunt and uncle in Muskegon, spent a year working in a factory and learning English, and enrolled in high school at age seventeen.
From Muskegon he moved to Grand Rapids, where he sold shoes and met the woman he'd marry the next year. After a stint in the army, he managed Kinney shoe stores in different cities before returning to Muskegon to open a Coney Island in 1963. Six years later, he moved to Ann Arbor to open Frank's with his brother-in-law, Frank Petropoulos. The two later sold the restaurant and opened the Delta at State and Packard, a favorite of the Michigan football, hockey, and baseball teams.
"When we were kids, and he was at the Delta, he'd go to work at 7 a.m., come home to nap between 3 and 5, then not come home until 11 or 11:30," Williams recalls. "Every night. He did not take a day off."
When Petropoulos returned to Greece in 1983, Poulos sold the Delta and returned to Frank's as manager. Six years later, he bought the business. He's still there, cooking breakfast and lunch daily.
Frank's usually closes only for two weeks in August. So his regulars were surprised this February to find the restaurant dark for several days. Charlene, Pete's wife of fifty years, had died of leukemia. She'd been a lively, behind-the-scenes partner who helped keep the restaurant supplied and their home in order.
"She was quite the lady," Poulos says while cleaning up at the end of a recent day. "There was nothing she could not do."
Then he shakes his head in disbelief.
"She was with me since the age of eighteen till today," he says. "I miss her so much."
For fifty years, Charlene cared for the oldest of their five children, Theophany, who became severely brain damaged from meningitis at the age of eighteen months.
Friends told the couple to institutionalize the child, but they wouldn't hear of it. Now another daughter, Athena Garland-Poulos, takes care of her sister during the day.
Weekends and breakfasts at Frank's are still busy. But the weekday lunch hour has taken a hit since Panera Bread opened a few blocks away last March.
Poulos's children think it's time for him to wrap it up. But there are five years left on his lease, and he aims to honor it.
Away from work, Poulos enjoys watching the Greek channel on satellite TV plus U-M and Detroit sports and spending time with his eight grandchildren, six of whom live in the area. But while retiring would mean more time with them, it would mean leaving his extended family--Frank's customers.
"They love me, and I love them," he says. "Without them, I have nothing."
If need be, though, Poulos can practice tough love. Once a customer walked out of Frank's without paying, Williams recalls, and her father ran out after him--only to slip and break his arm.
And don't even think about opening up a laptop in Frank's. To linger like that could mean no seat for the next paying customer.
[Originally published in May, 2010.]