ST. PETERSBURG — Since emigrating from Greece 37 years ago, the Gogas family has lived an American dream.
The results speak for themselves in the smells of melting feta cheese and spinach pie, and tens of thousands of customers. Spiro Gogas, a co-owner of Athenian Garden restaurants, embodied his family's success.
Mr. Gogas, who helped mold a single Greek restaurant into a local institution, died Friday after undergoing surgery, his family said.
He was 49.
"It's a huge loss. We are all shocked by it," said Peter Vergiris, a manager at Skidders Restaurant in St. Pete Beach. "He was well-spoken and well-respected. It's just unbelievable."
"He was a very aggressive guy," said Angelo Gogas, his brother and business partner. "If he wanted to do something, he would do it."
Mr. Gogas was born in 1962 in a small farming village near Corfu, Greece.
"Where we lived, whatever you did, that's what you did for the rest of your life," Mr. Gogas told a reporter in 2007. "We lived off the land and off the ground. There were no other opportunities."
One thing they did have was good food. Fotini Gogas was the family cook. Her husband, Dimitrios, baked pastries. In 1974, they took their sons to St. Petersburg after being invited by a relative.
The family had no money and spoke no English. But they settled in. Young Spiro played football at Boca Ciega High School. His parents washed dishes for $2.25 an hour.
In 1979, Angelo Gogas got a job at Athenian Garden, then a 2-year-old restaurant at Tyrone Boulevard and 22nd Avenue N. His mother hired on as a cook the same year. Mr. Gogas later joined them.
All family members saved their earnings from restaurant jobs. They did not go to movies and rarely bought new clothes. By 1987, they had enough money to buy the restaurant, which they moved closer to Tyrone Square Mall and opened in 1988. Over the years, Mr. Gogas and his brother moved or expanded the restaurant several times.
"When they took over, they made it such a successful business," said Vergiris, 42. "They are hard workers, both of them."
In the mid 1990s, Mr. Gogas met and married Eleni, who also hails from Greece.
Over the past decade, Athenian Garden has had several locations on or near Fourth Street N. In October, an Athenian Garden restaurant moved from Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street N to its current location at Fourth Street and 22nd Avenue N, complementing its existing locations on Tyrone Boulevard and on Starkey Road in Largo.
Though charming, Mr. Gogas was not talkative when it came to sharing difficulties. "If he had a bad day, he would not share it," said Angelo Gogas, 53. "He would walk away."
In his free time, Mr. Gogas enjoyed boating, weightlifting and playing with his dogs: Hercules, a Maltese-Shih Tzu; and Rocky, a Shih Tzu. He was a competition-winning amateur bodybuilder who did not drink or smoke, his family said.
He spent part of this summer in Greece, visiting extended family members. Mr. Gogas so enjoyed his stay, he returned to each home for another round of visits — then returned for a third visit before coming home.
The inspiring life story took a tragic turn Friday, the day Mr. Gogas was to undergo a hernia operation at Carillon Surgery Center, his family said. At some point Friday morning, he was transported from the outpatient center to Northside Hospital.
By 11 a.m., the family had received word that Mr. Gogas' heart had stopped while he was under anesthesia and that doctors were unable to revive him.
The Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office is awaiting test results, and does not expect to determine a cause of death before 60 to 90 days.
Carillon Surgery Center is part of St. Anthony's Outpatient Center. Citing patient privacy rules, St. Anthony's spokeswoman Beth Hardy declined to comment on how Mr. Gogas might have died.
"This is so crazy," his brother said. "If he had (an illness), I could relate. But he was so healthy."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.