Pete Gianakos: An institution at an institution retires
New London — OK. Pete Gianakos story.
He walked forlornly into the bar one day at the city institution known as Mr. G's, spotting yours truly having a social sparkler with Sandy Barnes, a 22-year weekend bartender at G's and longtime teacher in the Groton school system. He knew Sandy and I were suckers for Pete's quirky, kooky humor.
"What's wrong, Pete?" we ask.
"It's my friend," Pete says, deadpanning artfully. "He was out of work, finally found a job and then had to quit."
"Why?" we ask.
"Well," he said, "his new job was at the fire hydrant factory. He had to quit because he couldn't find a place to park."
That was it. Sandy and I began to giggle. We saw each other giggle and fed off the giggling until the laughter began to produce wheezing. (It's hard to explain, really.)
"Then he found another job," Pete said, not ready to show us any mercy. "It was at the salt and pepper factory. It was only seasonal."
And there, ladies and germs, is the great Peter Gianakos.
Peter G: A man who began working for his dad, Louis, former proprietor of the New Willow Restaurant at 24 Bank St. as an 8-year-old in the late 50s. And then the co-owner of Mr. G's, the former fruit stand on Williams St., still with its fastball now 54 years later.
Pete Gianakos estimates that he's helped feed us in this corner of the world for the last 64 years.
And now he's decided to retire, leaving a kitchen famous for pizza, grinders, prognostications and bad jokes to his brother, George, and nephew Pete Farnan.
Where to begin with a man who knows everybody?
"I guess we all know when it's time," Pete said earlier this week from a booth in the refurbished dining room. "I've had a few health issues. It's just hard to do it physically. It's not like I won't be here anymore. But the day to day stuff is over."
Gianakos grew up on Montauk Ave. and played football and basketball at New London High, graduating in 1966. He was the captain of the basketball team both in Whalerville and at Central Connecticut, where he played with Howie Dickenman, among others. He came home and thought he might actually work for the FBI once — maybe he'd get the bad guys to laugh themselves into submission — before choosing the family business.
He's been an institution at an institution ever since, working the hours required to make G's a haunt for lunch, dinner, pregame, postgame, weekdays, weeknights, weekends and late-night snacks for five decades. Somehow, he could juggle three pizzas, four grinders and five jokes simultaneously.
"Every time he'd walk into the bar, I'd wonder if I'd hear the same joke I heard 15 times before or something spontaneous," Barnes said. "It was hysterical to me. He knew I loved his sense of humor. He didn't even have to try. Sometimes, he would be so corny that it was ridiculous. But you couldn't help it. He would do these Christmas shows at parties. This box full of stuff. He'd yell 'lend me your ear!' and then pull out an ear of corn."
Gianakos has two life-partners. First, his wife of 42 years, Freda, an educator in the East Lyme school system. Freda and Pete have two sons, Chris and Peter, who run the successful G's Fitness and Nutrition in Waterford. There are four grandchildren. And some irony: The sons run a business to burn the calories the family so painstakingly helped create.
Then there's his business partner, his brother George, who is part of the floor show. A rite of passage at G's: You are at the bar trying to focus on a ballgame while Peter is in your ear complaining about George. Peter leaves. Ten minutes later, George is in the other ear complaining about Peter.
"You have your friends, sure, but there's nothing like being in business with your family," Pete Gianakos said. "Do George and I disagree? About everything. But I love him and he loves me. He's my brother. He will always be there for me."
George, 10 years younger, said, "you can always count on family. Always. That's still my brother. We've worked together for 40 years. I didn't idolize him growing up, but I always looked up to him. Good athlete, good looking guy. I wanted to be like my brother. Then once I got to know him ... "
George continued, "It was tough at times. Two different personalities. But we took the strengths of each other and made it work. That's the truth. We social distanced before it became a thing. He worked one shift and I worked the other. But we were always there to cover for each other. We never missed anything our kids were involved with because of that."
Now the business goes to George and Farnan.
"I remember as a little kid, always being like his shadow," Farnan said. "He taught me just about everything. Now in my adult life, he's still doing it. How to run a business. The value of a penny."
Peter G will remain part of the scenery at G's, especially when the perils of the pandemic are over. There's no getting rid of the unofficial mayor/comedian.
"I can't let this go without thanking all the customers. A lot of them have become like family," Peter Gianakos said.
Peter G. is like our favorite, if not quirky, uncle. He's always there and always makes us laugh. There's not a better tribute to him than the perhaps unwitting one from Sandy Barnes.
"How are you going to fit in all the people you have to interview about him?" she said. "There must be hundreds."
More than that, Sandy. More than that.
Happy retirement, Pete. See you at the fire hydrant factory.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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