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Michael Louis Pappas, Tarpon Springs' dean of dining, dies at 86

TARPON SPRINGS — His father invented the Greek salad as we know it — built on a pile of lettuce, soaked in olive oil and crowned with potato salad.

It took Michael Louis Pappas, the eldest son of Louis Pappas, who founded the Riverside Cafe near the Sponge Docks in 1925, to turn that Greek salad into an American standard.

He also built a new and much larger Pappas Restaurant that packed in more than 4,000 customers one Easter Sunday.

Mr. Pappas, who died Friday at 86, also opened Pappas restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg before turning operations over to his relatives. The family has since sold or closed those restaurants while opening several smaller cafes, none of which came close to approaching Pappas Restaurant in its glory days, with Mr. Pappas at the helm.

"It was a restaurant where all the locals went on Saturday evening," said Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris. "People came to Tarpon Springs just so they could eat at Pappas Restaurant."

Some of Mr. Pappas' business decisions angered local residents — including George Billiris, the mayor's husband. In 1981, after Mr. Pappas bought the old sponge exchange, Billiris led an unsuccessful effort to buy it back.

Mr. Pappas destroyed most of the exchange, which he called "2 acres of good land that was overrun with rats," and turned the area into retail shops. The move created a tourism district that still draws crowds, but caused the waterfront to lose its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

He also left his mark on the city with philanthropy. His seed money created the now-defunct American Hellenic Educational Philanthropic Association, which ran for two decades before closing in the mid 1990s. He raised the $3 million needed to build the Spanos-Pappas Community Center, including a $1.5 million contribution from San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos.

A portly man with a gruff voice, Mr. Pappas favored dark suits and sunglasses. "He practically scared off guys who wanted to date me," said daughter Connie Pappas, 54.

Her brother, Michael Louis Pappas III, remembers his father as a natural businessman, quick to decide.

"He could make a decision in, like, 10 seconds," said Pappas, 52.

"He was quick," said lifelong friend George Faklis, 78, the owner of Faklis Department Store, who said Mr. Pappas could sniff out a good or bad deal instantly, calculating interest rates in his head.

One of his most important decisions came in 1952, when Louis Pappas suffered a heart attack and died. Mr. Pappas took over the Riverside Cafe, where he had worked since grade school, apart from a three-year stint in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Louis Pappas had already modified the traditional Greek salad, which came with the still-familiar raw peppers, tomatoes and feta cheese, but added a bed of lettuce and an olive-oil-based potato salad.

But it took Mr. Pappas to turn the restaurant — and the city — into a tourist magnet. He built a two-story Pappas Restaurant near the docks in 1975 and ran the place with his brothers, Jack and Luke. The restaurant employed 15 cashiers, 30 cooks and 90 servers in its heyday.

Mr. Pappas was respected by other restaurant owners, said Andy Salivares, owner of Mykonos Restaurant. "He ate at other restaurants all the time," said Salivares, 68. "He wanted everybody to succeed."

He suffered a personal disappointment in 1987 when his son, Michael Louis, was convicted of selling $14,000 worth of cocaine to an undercover Pinellas County sheriff's deputy and was sentenced to four years in prison. In 1997, he was given a full pardon from the state and had his civil rights restored, saying he had turned his life around.

"At first he wanted to kill me," said the younger Pappas, who took over the restaurant with other family members after his father got out of the business in the late 1980s. "Then he became my biggest supporter."

Pappas and his uncles sold their part of the business in the early 1990s, but a former business partner runs Louis Pappas Market Cafe in a half-dozen locations in the Tampa Bay area, and recently closed a location at 1530 Fourth St. N.

With his passing, even former opponents like George Billiris are praising his accomplishments.

"We had a difference of opinion, but as far as I'm concerned, he's done nothing but good for the community," said Billiris, 82. "He gave Tarpon Springs tourism, so how could that be a bad thing?"

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

Biography

Michael Pappas

Born: Dec. 25, 1922.

Died: May 8, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Maria; daughter, Constance Pappas; son, Michael Louis Pappas III and his wife, Paula; brothers, Lucas and Jack Pappas; sisters, Bertha Houllis and Nina Gray; and two grandsons.

Service: 11 a.m. today, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs.

Michael Louis Pappas, Tarpon Springs' dean of dining, dies at 86 05/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 6:01pm]
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