He Was Going to Close the Family Diner. Then He Got a Sign.
Chris Panayiotou, a burly man with a kind smile, was always known for his playful side. When Mr. Panayiotou wasn’t tending to the family business, the 30-year-old Gee Whiz Diner in Lower Manhattan, he loved to get together with his father to tinker with cars and computers, or build Legos with his sons.
But all that changed when Mr. Panayiotou’s father, the beloved frontman of Gee Whiz, died of Covid-19 last spring.
Peter Panayiotou had kept Gee Whiz thriving through Sept. 11, Hurricane Sandy and years of gentrification and soaring rents. But the pandemic proved too forceful, shuttering the diner in March; a few weeks later, the elder Mr. Panayiotou would die of Covid-19. The fate of the business was left in his son’s hands.
Chris Panayiotou, however, was deep in mourning, and struggled to take charge of what was essentially his second home. It reminded him too much of his father. Gee Whiz remained locked up and untouched for three months. Mr. Panayiotou wondered whether he should just give up and sell it.
But when protests over the police killing of George Floyd began in late spring, setting off sporadic violence and looting in Manhattan, Mr. Panayiotou got a call from a handyman who worked in the diner’s building, suggesting he should shore up the property.
To his surprise, Mr. Panayiotou arrived to find that the restaurant was perfectly fine. Indeed, the diner’s doors had been covered with messages and memories by customers, its entry filled with dandelions, orchids and roses.
Mr. Panayiotou entered the diner for the first time since his father’s death. A few minutes later, David Morales, a concierge from a building next door, rushed in. “They put your dad’s name on the sidewalk,” Mr. Morales told him.
In the previous few days, a man had been seen welding at night, Mr. Morales explained to Mr. Panayiotou, engraving the name Peter Panayiotou on the sidewalk. The mystery welder told a passer-by, “Peter was a good friend.”
Mr. Morales took Mr. Panayiotou outside, to the corner of Greenwich and Warren Street. “Look down,” he said.
There it was, in elegant bulging block letters, three feet wide and sealed in Greek blue (it has since faded).
Mr. Panayiotou was speechless.
His father’s name stared at him, and his eyes welled up. Mr. Morales put his hand on Mr. Panayiotou’s shoulder and said, “I’ll let you be.” Mr. Panayiotou stood there, he said, for another 10 minutes.
“This is a sign,” he thought. “We’re going to reopen no matter what. No matter what. This is what Dad would want.”
When Peter Panayiotou was 25, he emigrated from Cyprus to the United States. In 1989, Peter and his business partner, Andy Koutsoudakis, who came from the Greek island of Crete, decided to start a restaurant that showcased home-style cooking.
The two constantly experimented with their menu. “Food that reminded you of home,” Mr. Panayiotou said of his father’s cooking, “but with a twist.” Customers were brought into the process.
“Peter would say, ‘Hey, try this!’ But would blindfold us so that we couldn’t see what we were eating,” recalled Tak Inagaki, a longtime regular who later became a close family friend.
Doors opened at 5:30 a.m., welcoming “the morning coffee crew,” including the homeless who could get free coffee, said Susan Guercio, who has been a customer for 22 years. Doors closed at midnight, seven days a week. That is, until the pandemic shut the city down last March.
But his father tried to be upbeat about the situation, Mr. Panayiotou recalled. “I remember one of the waiters said: ‘All right, Pete. Goodbye,’ and my dad said, ‘Not goodbye — till I see you again.’”
The next day, Chris’s father complained about a stomachache. “We told him, ‘Maybe you’re nervous,’” Mr. Panayiotou said. It was the first time Gee Whiz had shut down in 30 years, apart from the aftermath of Sept. 11, during which Peter Panayiotou spent several months cleaning up the damage from the terror attacks, just blocks away.
Being exposed to the pollution in 2001 contributed to Peter Panayiotou’s need for a double-lung transplant seven years ago. As the virus emerged, he was 65 years old and considered high-risk for Covid-19. To be safe, the family took him to the emergency room, but he was sent home and told to isolate. By then, Chris’s mother, Maria, 67, had tested positive for the virus. Two days later, his father returned to the emergency room, but was again sent home. The following day, he turned blue. An ambulance came.
“That was the last time we saw Dad, turning that corner in the ambulance,” Mr. Panayiotou said. This time, his father remained at the hospital and was put on a ventilator. He died on April 5, nine days after the death of Andy Koutsoudakis, his business partner of 30 years, also from Covid-19.
Chris was devastated. Days were spent in bed, and nights were spent on his living room sofa staring at the wall in the dark. He started smoking again, going through a pack of Marlboro 27s a day and shedding close to 50 pounds in four months.
“There has always been laughter in the Panayiotou family as far back as I can remember,” said Jessie Panayiotou, who met Chris when she was 16 and married him in 2011.
As a young man, Mr. Panayiotou pursued computer science at LaGuardia Community College and then City Tech. But he did not graduate. Instead, he decided to help his father with Gee Whiz, where he had grown up, getting training in various jobs along the way, and often doing his homework there after school.
When Chris was 8, there was a math problem he struggled to solve, he said. His father told him to “use the KISS method,” Mr. Panayiotou recalled. “‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ Take a step back, and don’t overthink it.”
Ever since, whenever there was a problem, Mr. Panayiotou would take a step back and look for a sign. “There are little things you might overlook, but if you just look, the sign is right there,” he said.
The mystery welder had given Chris a sign to reopen the diner. But first, he wanted his family to see the tribute.
His brother, sisters and mother all traveled to Gee Whiz to pay their respects to the welding. When they saw it, they wept, hugging one another in the same spot for almost an hour.
The welder’s identity remains unknown.
Gee Whiz reopened in August. The brand-new outdoor space — exploding with the elder Mr. Panayiotou’s favorite color, forest green — was built by the family and employees to evoke a typical diner interior.
“We kept on asking ourselves, ‘What would Dad do?’” Mr. Panayiotou said.
“So many customers stop by just to share stories about my dad,” he said. A customer recently came by not to eat, but to share a memory from 20 years ago about how Peter Panayiotou had given her a pendant light when she told him she was looking for the same light fixtures as the ones at Gee Whiz, but was having trouble finding them.
At first, Mr. Panayiotou wanted to avoid these conversations, but he has changed. “I know now to listen, because it’s how I can grieve.”
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