The colorful sign in front of the restaurant at 3500 Morrison Road reads "Peppers Restaurant" for the passersby on the busy roadway, but for the owner of Peppers, it could read "The American Dream on a Plate." That owner is George Strompoulos, whose southwest Denver restaurant has made an impact on generations of Denver families over the past 36 years.
Peppers started out as a diner in 1981 at the building across the street, when it was known as the Breakfast Prince. Strompoulos went in with his business partner, Milt Latsonas, and together they built an all-day diner for the neighborhood. Even way, before the move and name change, the restaurant was famous for its huevos rancheros, the owner explains. Peppers offers lots of other Mexican dishes, he adds, and “our menudo and posole are very popular.” In fact, the name change to Peppers came after his wife, Elaine, pointed out that so much of the food on the menu is spicy.
Strompoulos grew up in a restaurant family on the west side of Chicago and worked at his father’s eatery, the now-closed Pine Grill, equally enjoying the front and back of the house. After moving to Colorado, he met Elaine in Denver while returning from a ski trip to Aspen in 1972. They've been married for nearly 45 years and have watched their five children graduate from Overland High School, where Elaine was a teacher before retiring.
George's Greek family extends well beyond Chicago; when he married Elaine, he became part of her own restaurant family: the Armatas clan, of Sam's No. 3 fame. To the Armatas family, Strompoulos is known simply as “Uncle George” — and he's also known for his pancake recipe (a Westword Best of Denver award winner way back in 2001), which Patrick Armatas (who runs the Sam's No. 3 business with his brothers Sam and Alex) says is a closely guarded secret.
Greeks have a hard-to-translate concept called “filotimo,” which loosely means "love of honor," encompassing values like hospitality, honor, doing one’s best and showing respect for others. Strompoulos points out that it’s a stereotype for Greek people to own restaurants, but that filotimo helps to explain why. No matter who walks in to his restaurant, he says, he wants to make that person feel welcome and find common connections. “You connect with people and make them feel welcome in your place — and you feed them,” he adds.
That dedication to hospitality means that you'll often find the owner working alongside his staff, pouring coffee, bussing dishes and wiping down tables. (For new customers who don't already know him, it won't be long before the gentleman with the close-cropped gray beard and friendly smile introduces himself personally.)
Longtime Peppers server Ludi Rivera (employed for seventeen years) says the best part of her job is “my boss.” Lanette Enriquez, another server with thirteen years of tenure, has the same answer. She's actually a legacy: Her mother, Millie Miera, has been working at Peppers for 35 years. And Enriquez's daughter, Alysia Trujillo, has been on the team for five years, making three generations of Peppers employees. It's obvious that Strompoulos is doing something right to garner so much loyalty. His longest-employed cook, Ruben Granillo, has been turning out the family recipes for more than 22 years.
Miera says the customers are as loyal to Peppers as the employees. “It’s funny that many of my customers always order the same thing, no matter how many years they’ve been coming here,” she explains with a laugh. Since Latsonas passed away several years ago, she has become Strompoulos’s second in command.
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Strompoulos is one of those people who picks up languages easily and is fluent in Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in Spanish literature and a minor in Russian literature, and points out that his ability to speak multiple languages has come in handy as a restaurant owner.
The 68-year-old Strompoulos has also played piano since he was five. He has a grand piano at home, but he also has an upright piano in the back of the restaurant and is equally proficient at classical and jazz — which he exhibited during our conversation. He says he sometimes rolls the piano to the front of the restaurant, especially when other musicians show up, but there isn’t room to leave it out full-time.
When asked if, after 36 years in business, he would do anything differently, Strompoulos says, “I would make the menu smaller," adding that he has been very fortunate and has no plans for retiring — something that will be music to the ears of Peppers' longtime fans and employees.
Peppers Restaurant is at 3500 Morrison Road and is open Sunday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call the restaurant at 303-975-0285 or visit the Peppers website for more information.