A Tuolumne County family of restaurateurs is living the American dream, one breakfast platter at a time.

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


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.

Contact Ryan Campbell at rcampbell@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4526.