It’s a situation comparable to having an adult child move back in with mom and dad.
Chris and Helene Pantoleon, longtime owners of Oak Harbor restaurant Zorba’s, sold the business nearly two years ago. But the couple have found themselves holding the reins once again and will be reopening the popular Greek restaurant this week.
“Right now, we’re happy to be back,” Chris said. “We needed a long break, but now I’m happy to be back. I feel rested and I’m ready to go.”
“He’s ready to cook again,” Helene said.
The Pantoleons first bought Zorba’s from relatives in 2001 when it was located on Pioneer Way. They moved the business to its current location at the intersection of State Route 20 and Goldie Road in 2010, when they purchased the property. Wanting to semi-retire, they sold the business to Kevin Olson and Juanita Robertson in June, 2014, but retained ownership of the property. Olson and Robertson recently walked away from the business amid complaints from patrons about quality and consistency.
“Since we own the building, we have to fill it, so it’s just easier for us to come in ourselves and do what we did before and reestablish it as being a successful business again,” said Helene.
“A lot of people think it’s easy and it’s not. It is a 24/7 thing and you have to be willing to put the time and effort in,” she continued. “And people skills. You have to have people skills. It’s not just the food, it’s not just the atmosphere, it’s everything.”
While they didn’t expect to be running the restaurant again, the Pantoleons find themselves in familiar territory. Both had worked in family restaurants since they were young and have always loved it. While they were ready for a break when they sold the business nearly two years ago, they are both looking forward to being back.
“For me, it will be seeing all my customers again,” said Helene. “Because we have a relationship that’s more than just a customer, you know their first name, you know what they eat. And I think Chris is looking forward to cooking for everybody.”
“When you do it all your life and you stop doing it a while, you’re missing something in your life,” agreed Chris.
When Zorba’s does reopen, it will be open six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. Chris said he will take Monday’s off so he has a day to recuperate, although the couple’s sense of humor doesn’t rest.
“We’ve been married 25 years and that’s all we’ve done is restaurants,” Helene said.
“We moved to Oak Harbor when I was 36, 37,” Chris said. “That’s 15 years ago, so it’s a long time. From a teenager to an old man, that’s a long time.”
“We moved a little faster back then,” laughed Helene.
“Much faster,” agreed Chris.
Personal speed records notwithstanding, both Chris and Helene are working hard to get Zorba’s opened as quickly as possible. They have encountered a few maintenance issues that needed to be resolved, but all the permits and licenses are in place, as is Zorba’s traditional menu.
“We’re going back to pretty well the original menu that we had,” said Helene. “We’re going to try to feel it out and see if there are some things people don’t like or maybe they come in and don’t see something and ask us to make it, and develop the menu from there.”
The menu is sure to include Greek favorites, like moussaka, spanakopita, gyros, souvlaki, tzatziki and Chris’ personal favorite, roast lamb – everything one would expect from a couple originally from Greece although different regions.
“I came to Canada, he came to the U.S. and we met through mutual friends,” said Helene. “We probably never would have met if we had stayed in Greece.”
“We’re very proud of that, proud of our roots,” said Chris.
As it turned out, they married just eight months after meeting, getting engaged only a few weeks into the relationship. And, yes, said Helene, their wedding was very much like the one portrayed in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“Exactly. That was our wedding, 300 people we didn’t know,” she said. “It was fun.”
Instead of planning out their semi-retirement (Helene still works part time at Whidbey Island Bank), Helene and Chris are preparing for the next chapter of Zorba’s.
Most of the hiring has been completed and includes several staff members who worked with the
Pantoleons when the restaurant was downtown. According to Chris, they look forward to hiring new people and watching the camaraderie develop.
“We all got together shortly after we received the keys from Kevin and Juanita and they were all on board,” Helene said. “There was no hesitation on anybody’s part, they were ready and willing. They were excited about it, too.”
As they look at the road ahead of them, the Pantoleons are taking this detour in stride. While unexpected, they are happy to be back and are looking forward to the future.
“You know, you have to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose,” Chris said.
“A lot of people have good memories of coming to Zorba’s, whether it was down on Pioneer or here,” said Helene. “Remember the good times and try to make some more new memories with us.”