The Mitsopoulos family has owned the Pine Tree restaurant next to the Best Western Hotel on Hess Avenue for the past 13 years and they have owned six other restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to the diner they own several rental properties in California.
The patriarch of the entrepreneurial family, Tom Mitsopoulos, 60, and his wife Stella Mitsopoulos, 54, emigrated from Greece in the 1970s to join other family members in Alberta, Canada. Tom Mitsopoulos started out doing chores in his brother’s small restaurant.
“I washed dishes, cleaned the floors — whatever hard work there was to be done, I did it,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he was promoted to head cook at his brother’s humble restaurant outside of Edmonton. He recalls riding a bicycle to work in the snow because he didn’t have a Canadian driver’s license.
He bought his first 10-table restaurant on a remote stretch of the Alaska Highway, serving North American-style food like scrambled eggs and bacon. Most of his clientele were construction workers and roughnecks from the oil wells of Alaska.
“The customers were so dirty, at the end of the day we had to use a shovel to get rid of the mud on the floor,” Mitsopoulos said.
Business was going well in Canada, but the Mitsopoulos family grew weary of sub-zero winter temperatures and snow, and decided to immigrate once more in 1992 — this time to California.
“We came down here for a better quality of life,” he said. “Up there it was cold and it was hard to make friends.”
The Mitsopoulos family bought a struggling restaurant in Ceres and were turning a profit within a year, he said. In 1999, Mitsopoulos bought the Sonora Oak Tree restaurant and renamed it the Pine Tree.
He said it was too stressful managing two restaurants at the same time, so he sold his interest in the Ceres diner and focused solely on the Pine Tree restaurant.
His son, Andy Mitsopoulos, 32, helps with the restaurant while another son, George Mitsopoulos, 34, is a vice principal at a school in Hayward. Stella Mitsopoulos is usually in charge of the register and making friendly chit chat with customers.
Tom Mitsopoulos said it takes a lot of work to own a successful restaurant, and it’s a better business practice to manage just one restaurant rather than several. He often works from five to seven days a week for 15 hours a day.
But the hard work has paid off. With humble beginnings in a small town outside of Athens and a sixth-grade education, Mitsopoulos estimates his net worth at $8 million.
He began to diversify his business holdings and now owns several rental properties in Stanislaus County and plans on building a strip mall in Ceres in the near future. He’s strategy has been to grow his wealth at a slow and steady pace rather than try to turn a quick buck.
“I don’t want to grow too much and turn around and lose everything,” he said.
He said part of the secret to the success of his restaurant has been its close connection with the nearby Best Western Hotel. The Pine Tree has a contract with the hotel to provide free breakfasts to hotel visitors.
Mitsopoulos said he serves 200 to 300 breakfasts a day during the summer tourist season and about 40 percent of his business comes from the hotel.
The Pine Tree offers mostly American-style fare, but Mitsopoulos likes to add Greek flare to the menu with Greek salads, pork ribs and Mediterranean chicken.
“I don’t like staying in the kitchen all day, I like to get out and
talk to people and do other things with the business,” he said.