By Jan Worth-Nelson
Noah Vukaj has sold Olympic Grill on E. Court Street to the Leo’s Coney Island franchise. The sign at the popular eatery is expected to come down Thursday,
“The opportunity was there and I cannot turn it down,” Vukaj, 53, said. He is buying a strip mall on Silver Lake Road in Fenton. It has seven tenants, all local, and he’s looking forward to a new challenge after owning Olympic for ten years.
Vukaj, who steadfastly kept Fox News on the grill TV but managed to win over even most of the College Cultural neighborhood liberals with free ice cream for the kids and hugs for everyone, said his life changed when his brother John died last year of brain cancer.
“Since my brother died it’s not for me the same–that was the main thing,” Vukaj said. “My brother John was a part of this, he was everything for me. He was my right hand man.”
The two came to the U.S. from Albania together 24 years ago, John four years older, and started to do business together. They even lived together in the same house in Davison.
“My kids, they write in his headstone, ‘second father,'” Vukaj said. “Then when he got sick for three years my wife was his nurse.”
Vukaj, whom some of his customers affectionately called “Flint George Clooney” (the resemblance is striking) said he is pleased the restaurant is being acquired by two young couples–the main owner being Pamela Harris and her husband Steph from Grosse Pointe.
“That for me changed everything — everybody needs change, everybody needs a dream come true. Since God make me a way when I come here, I wish the same for others.
“Every time I come back into this country, I kiss the ground,” Vukaj said. “My kids say, Dad, what are you doing? I say, God is first, this country is second. I feel it. And when I came in this community, I felt like I was home.
“When I took over this place everybody told me I’m gonna fail because the business wasn’t there, — but these people are warm, make me welcome — you guys make me who I am.”
The new owners are part of the Leo’s franchise by family connections and the restaurant business on both sides. Pamela Harris’s sister is married to one of Leo’s sons, and Helen Loukopoulos, Pamela Harris’s mother, said she and her husband, originally from Greece, have been in the restaurant business for 40 years. The restaurant will be Pamela Harris’s first franchise.
Vukaj says he hopes his customers would not think he let them down, “but it was not my intention. My brother was a part of this and for me when he died it changed everything.” He said he knows how important a restaurant can be in building community — like helping people get through Flint’s water crisis. For awhile when the water crisis started, business went down, he said. He bought a $5,000 filtration system to help assure his customers would feel safe–and “you people came back and made it what it is,” he said.
The Court Street Leo’s will be the fifth in the county, joining others in Davison, Fenton, Grand Blanc and another on Miller Road. The chain, now with headquarters in Birmingham, was started by brothers Peter and Leo Stassinopoulos, who arrived in Detroit from Greece in the 1960s. The corporation does about $30 million worth of business yearly generated in more than 50 locations in and around southeast Michigan.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.