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Popular restaurant survives shaky start

George and Joanna Katergaris
George and Joanna Katergaris

The first question George and Joanna Katergaris were asked in an interview on June 3 was "How did it go on that Thursday, back on June 15, 1978?

Joanna lifted her eyes skyward and George closed his, in a state of obvious pain, and he said in his wonderful accent, "It was terrible."

"What did you serve?"

"Serve" he asked in a raised voice, "I served what we had: canned spinach, canned tomatoes, canned beans and cheap mayonnaise. Oh, it was awful. The stove was too old to have been in use, the dishwasher was out of date and did not work, the blenders had not been used in years, and, oh my god, I knew I had just spent my last dime on something that could never be successful. I was heartsick."

His face reflected all of the wonderful history of Greek tragedies. He was sorrowful but continued telling me about the day that is etched in his memory.

"I tried to be really nice," he continued, "you know, trying to make up for the awful food we were serving." He leaned back, exhausted, while Joanna, his wife of 38 years, laughed and said, "We did some fast thinking that first night after the restaurant closed. We knew where to go for fresh vegetables and we, in the beginning, operated on a pay-as-you-go basis; however, with time and hard work, things began to catch up."

George reared back in his chair and with a look of pure pleasure said, "Just think: Tomorrow, on the 15th of June, it will be 30 years since I realized that I owned a place that had to be started from new. The old way would not work, not for us, nor the people we would serve. So, we started making changes."

Change, an important word in the American vocabulary today, but it was used over and over in the Katergaris business 30 years ago. If they found something delicious, they used it. The rolls that you have eaten and enjoyed for 30 years are from a recipe of Mrs. Alice Stroud, a famous cook in the Fort Lawn area. Hats off to her and to the women who made them from young age to retirement, Queen Crosby and Reola Cunningham -- they are remembered and honored, for their cooking talents helped to make this restaurant a landmark in the county of Chester and surrounding areas.

In 1980, a star arrived on the horizon, making her presence known for most of the 28 years she has smiled and pleased customers with her highly professional and charming self. She came as a high school student applying for a part-time job. All of you who frequent the restaurant know Rene Carter Jordan. She started working short hours and has remained, with give or take a few months; for all of that time. She is a known spokesman for the Wagon Wheel and is deeply treasured by all of "her clients." They wait to sit at her tables.

George and Joanna have discovered the trick of running a restaurant that, on a Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. will serve more than 600 people at their buffet table. There is a reason for the crowd: The food is delicious and always a little different. Two or three kinds of meat, stuffing and gravy that is not from a can or jar. Vegetables that are fresh from the local gardens, routed though their wholesaler and made appetizing with the know how of southern cooking. George overseeing food on every step of its journey to the customers that on a Sunday travel a long distance to enjoy the mighty table set by these good citizens of Chester County.

That first day back in 1978 let him know, in no uncertain terms, what this place needed, and together, with the help of long-serving cooks and waitresses, they have built a legend.

Have there been disasters? Of course, but the public rarely knew. This family did what all good merchants and managers do; they feigned happiness and rolled on, still serving their delicious, crisp, snappy fried squash that make mental trumpets blow and salivary glands release when the dish arrives at the table.

One evening, a few years ago, there was a rumble at the register, and I saw George walk to the telephone while two young men were trying to talk to him.

"He is calling in the cops," one teenager announced to the other.

"Oh, boy," his partner in crime said, and they stood there white faced while George conducted other business and waited for the arrival of the called "someone."

When the door opened, those boys were staring at their parents, and the negotiations began. George said, "Had they told me they didn't have the money for all they had ordered, I would have let them go, but they thought they could outsmart me. And I called their mama, and she told their daddy."

"The cops could never do the job that family did," he said, and I knew that I had been fair and they had been stopped before a more serious infraction occurred. Everything happens with the parents," he said, "it's all in the home." George, along with those other famous Greek fellows Socrates and Plato, stated words of wisdom, said by a thinking man who then turned and cooked the most delicious steak in the country.

In February, the son-in-law of George and Joanna came into the business. Bill Nixon is a restaurateur of long standing. He and his brother were brought up in a diner in Charlotte, owned by their father. Therefore, when he agreed to join his in-laws, he came with a clear understanding of all the restaurant business entails. He brings youth, verve and graciousness to the business and he lets George and Joanna have some free time to enjoy their wonderful children and grandchildren.

Bill is at the register, but if you look through the window, you will see George and Joanna watching, directing cooks and smiling and waving at the friends who have been with them when they served those cans of spinach on that star-studded Thursday in 1978.