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He Works Right Over His Roots

Bill Moor, The South Bend Tribune, January 22, 2008

John Stratigos usually stays out of the Barnaby's kitchen area. "We have people over there who really know what they are doing," says the owner of this South Bend restaurant on East Jefferson Boulevard. "I don't want to get in their way." But it is a special spot to him. "The kitchen is located in just about the same place where my grandparents' kitchen was in their home," says John, 53. "And we would be over there a lot - including every Sunday when my grandmother would make one of her pasta dinners."

Grandma Mary was Italian. She married a Greek, Spyridon Stratigos, who came to this country in 1903 as a youngster and married Mary in 1920. "My family has had roots in this neighborhood (by Barnaby's) for almost 100 years," John says. "In fact, my grandparents' home had an address of 713 E. Jefferson before it was torn down. That's the same as the Barnaby's address now." John didn't necessarily plan on it, but he is following in his grandfather's footsteps - or tugging on his apron strings. Spyridon Stratigos owned the Stratigon, a downtown restaurant and bar, from 1914 until 1963. "My grandfather was the frontman and my great uncle John did most of the cooking," John says. "I still have little old ladies talk to me about my Uncle John's rice pudding. You could order just about anything there. But when Studebaker went out, my grandfather decided it would be a good time for him to close, too."

Some people apparently wanted him out earlier. In 1924, the Stratigos brownstone home was bombed, seriously damaging the back end of the house. "It apparently was over 'protection' money that my grandfather wouldn't pay," John says of the unsolved crime. "My dad (George) and my Uncle Joe were small boys then and one of them had been crying back in his bed. If Aunt Rose hadn't gone back there and gotten both of them up, they would have been in harm's way." Today, fortunately, the only kind of dough that John has to worry about is for pizza, not protection.

He admits that he takes great pride in the local Reader's Choice Award that Barnaby's has regularly won for the best pizza. John always liked eating it, too, after his dad and two friends started the restaurant in 1969. But he chose different career paths after graduating from St. Joseph's High and Valparaiso University. He worked at the Youth Service Bureau for eight years, the South Bend school system for three years as a counselor, the Jamison Inn as an innkeeper for three years, and then seven years at Charter Hospital as a school liaison. Then, 11 years ago, his dad, South Bend attorney George Stratigos, died suddenly, and somebody in the family needed to step forward and run the restaurant. His two siblings, Spyridon and Amelia, live out of town, and his mom, Ruby, didn't need that kind of worry.

John knew he was the logical choice. "And, quite frankly, I was ready," he says. "I had enjoyed the hospitality business at Jamison and figured I could do this - even though I knew from my grandfather that the restaurant business could be 14-hour days." During much of his workday, John is a few doors down from the restaurant in his office, dealing with the bills and other paperwork. But you can usually catch him serving up the drinks at Barnaby's during the lunch hour. "That's the fun part of the day for me," he says. "I can talk with the customers and put an owner's face to the place."

Why back there? "John Spagnola is our general manager and the workhorse here," the other John says. "He's been working here for 38 years - since he was a 14-year old busboy. He's down at the other end running things. I try to stay out of his way." John, the owner, calls himself a bartender, but during lunch, "95 percent of the drinks are soft drinks," he says. He finds the bar a great vantage point for him - and just a building length away from where his grandparents once lived and where his father grew up. "I like what I'm doing," he says. "And, yes, I do think boh my granddad and my dad would be proud, too."