NEW PORT RICHEY — In a corner booth at Jimmy's Restaurant, owner Jimmy Galioto peeled back the plastic from a photo album and pulled a picture off the sticky sheet.
"That was the original Jimmy's," he said pointing at the picture, which he took in 1974 of a 1,000-square-foot diner, attached to a pizza parlor and a bar, at Missouri Road and what's now Grand Boulevard.
Galioto, 69, opened the diner when he was 29 and intended to run it for "20 years, tops." But yesterday, his restaurant turned 40.
Galioto grew up in a restaurant: Bill's Diner in Hackensack, N.J., which his dad, Bill, owned. When Galioto graduated from high school, he worked at the diner — which was open 24/7 — as a full-time short order cook.
"It was a living nightmare," Galioto said. When co-workers didn't show up for shifts, he had to work three in a row. Business was good, but Galioto never got a break.
So he quit, he said, and decided he would never return to the restaurant industry. He got married at 20 and worked small jobs in other industries until he turned 21 and was drafted by the Army.
He worked light weapons infantry for half a year, and in the mess hall at Fort Carson in Colorado as a cook for a year and a half. He didn't want to re-enlist and was honorably discharged. He returned to New Jersey to work as a trucker.
Meanwhile, his parents moved to New Port Richey and opened a restaurant called Fran's Sandwich Shop, named for Galioto's mom. Older truckers Galioto met had broken fingers and bad backs from years of handling and hauling heavy machinery. He didn't want that to happen to him.
So in 1974 he quit his job, sold his house in Spotswood, N.J., and drove a yellow Volkswagen Beetle to New Port Richey to do exactly what he always said he wouldn't.
He took over Fran's Sandwich Shop so his parents could retire, and he changed the name to Jimmy's.
It was a risk, he said, to plan to turn the business into something that could support his family.
"The first day the restaurant was mine, the air conditioning broke," Galioto said. Gross sales started at only $50 a day. But he put the money he made back into the business. In 1977, he hired a dishwasher named Lori Liberge, the 18-year-old daughter of a regular customer. Galioto added grits to the menu, and biscuits and gravy — still the restaurant's top-selling dish.
As Galioto hoped it would, business got better. Jimmy's outgrew its small space. So Galioto bought property across the street, which he planned to use to build a bigger building. In June 1987, before construction of the new Jimmy's had started, Galioto got a phone call in the middle of the night: the restaurant was on fire.
At Main Street and River Road, "I could see an orange glow in the sky," he said. He parked across the street and watched his restaurant burn.
The fire burned four businesses along a half block, according to a June 4, 1987, Pasco Times story. About "50 to 60" firefighters from four departments fought the blaze, and 12 of them were injured.
Nobody ever told Galioto how the fire started, but he knows, he said, it did not start at Jimmy's.
Liberge, by then a server, and other restaurant staff got new jobs while the new Jimmy's was under construction. Eleven months after the fire, Jimmy's Restaurant reopened at its new location.
He didn't advertise, he said, but "the first day we were open, we got a line around the building. Everybody wanted to see the new restaurant."
The business has remained popular.
"Snowbirds show up before they go home and unpack," said Liberge, 55, who returned to work at the restaurant when it reopened after the fire. She has been a server ever since.
"I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing," Liberge said. "I found my calling."
Galioto, whose son Brian is the general manager, attributes the restaurant's longevity to "good food, good business management and good people to support you," he said.
What Galioto has found at Jimmy's in the past 40 years is satisfaction.
Where there is great risk, he said, "there can be great gain."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.