Remembering the man behind the enterprise

National Coney Island founder dies at 73

By: Sara Kandel | C&G Newspapers | Published February 25, 2011

 James Giftos, founder of National Coney Island, died this month at age 73.

James Giftos, founder of National Coney Island, died this month at age 73.

He left behind a legacy — a soon-to-be franchised business with 23 locations and brand recognition across the state. But the people who knew him say he won’t be remembered just for the empire he created. Co-workers, family and friends say his personality, charisma and charitable nature far outshined the success of National Coney Island.

“He’s the guy who by the end of the wedding would be the one dancing with his collar unbuttoned and his tie tied around his head,” said Bob Nichols, vice president of National Coney Island. “He loved dancing. He loved having a good time.”

James Giftos, the founder and longtime president of National Coney Island and the National Chili Co., died Feb. 14, at age 73, after a three-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the plasma cells in bone marrow.

Nichols, 48, of Grosse Pointe, worked for Giftos for 25 years. He started as a manager right out of college and within a year was in the corporate office in charge of catering.

“Mr. G loved to dress up for Halloween,” said Donna Guadio, his executive assistant. “He’d come in here with costumes and masks and try to scare us. One time he came in here dressed as an old man with a trench coat on, and another time he dressed up like one of the Four Seasons.”

Guadio, 55, of Sterling Heights met Giftos when she worked at the National Chili Co. in Detroit. She worked closely with him for 38 years. Her eyes gloss over when she talks about him.

During his funeral Feb. 18 at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores, Tom Giftos says he learned more about his father’s friendly personality and charitable nature.

“There were so many people there that I didn’t even know,” he said. “The whole church was filled and people were standing.”

He said a monk came up to him after the service and told him his father had been supporting the monk’s missions in Alaska for many years. Tom Giftos hadn’t known his father was supporting the Russian Orthodox monk’s mission, yet he wasn’t surprised.

“But that has always happened a lot to me,” he said. “Where people would come up to me and say, ‘You know, your dad has been doing this for me.’”

Just before the monk introduced himself, a priest did.

“There was a monastery down the street from Steve’s Backroom on Kelly, and my dad would drive by the monastery when he would leave Steve’s. There was a priest there who said the first time he met my dad he was out measuring for a patio. A couple days later he went outside to finish measuring for it and a truck pulled up and a couple guys jumped out and said they were there to do his patio.”

Such generous acts were not uncommon for Giftos who was heavily involved in many local charitable organizations. He sat on the board of the St. John Hospital Guild and also helped support Wigs 4 Kids, the Northeast Detroit Lions Club and the Children’s Charities at Adios.

His employees say anytime they needed something, ‘Mr. G’ would step up to help. He’d seen much success in his life and he shared that success with everyone around him.

He was born on April 12, 1938 in Kyparrissia, Greece. He moved to the United States with his family in 1946 after years of hardship during World War II, when his hometown was overtaken and occupied by Nazi forces.

His family moved to Detroit, where Giftos attended Cass Tech High School, then Wayne State University.
After college he worked as a stockbroker in the Penobscot Building for the Detroit-based firm Dempsy-Tegler. He opened the first National Coney Island in Roseville’s Macomb Mall in 1965.

“He was a stock broker at first and then he started working at the Coney Island at Eastland Mall and that whet his appetite with the entrepreneur spirit, and my grandfather worked at Lafayette Coney Island downtown before opening up his own restaurant at Mack and East Grand Boulevard,” Tom Giftos said.

Tom Giftos doesn’t remember the name of his grandfather’s restaurant but says that it, along with his father’s experience at the National Chili Co., really helped motivate him to open his own restaurant. It was during his time at the Coney Island in Eastland Mall that he became involved in the National Chili Co. He became a partner there in the early ‘60s and by the end of the decade he was the sole owner.

In ’69 and ’71 Giftos opened two more locations, at 13 Mile Road and Harper Avenue and Mack and Seven Mile Road.

Today, there are 23 National Coney Island restaurants with more locations planned to open in 2011 and the National Chili Company now sells retail products in Kroger and Meijer stores throughout the Midwest.

Tom Giftos says that this year they plan to open their first franchise location. He says that his father had really wanted to see that. “He wanted to see 100 different National Coney Islands. He wanted them to be everywhere.”

Giftos long attributed National’s success to his loyal and hard-working employees.

“He lived by taking good care of his people,” Tom Giftos said. “That was evident in every single thing that he did. We have had the same guy washing dishes for us for 47 years. We have a lot of people that have been serving tables for 30-some years. He took care of his people.”

Nichols said Giftos always treated everybody as an equal. No position or job was more important than another. “If they needed to be done, Mr. G saw no problem with rolling up his sleeves to wash dishes. He didn’t feel like he was above that, and people saw that when he would come in to the restaurants.”

Guadio says Giftos treated office employees the same way. That was one of the things she says was most special about him.

“Every time he came in here he made sure he went around to everybody and said, ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon,” she said. “He had something to say to everybody. You weren’t just a worker here. You were somebody.”