Stella Mitoulis was weeping.
She and her husband, Nick, sat Monday afternoon in a window booth of their Center City restaurant, Sandy's, surrounded by the cards and flowers and gifts — tokens of a life spent behind one of the best diner counters in this ever-changing city.
The grill was cold, the lunch crowd had gone. Nick and Stella had but one more shift.
And then, after nearly 40 years: retirement.
Stella's first big vacation — a trip back home to Greece, to beautiful, mountainous Avgerinos to see her mother, Aphrodite — stretched out before her. And Nick, happy at last for a day off, counted the hours to when he could finally retire his egg-beating bowl and hang it in his living room.
"So I can see it every day," he said, smiling, over his Greek salad.
All Stella could do was weep.
"Stella, don't cry," Nick said.
She could not help it. She was going to miss the customers.
"I love my customers," she said.
And so many love Stella and Nick.
I have written about Stella and Nick before — how their homey diner at 24th and Locust made a few blocks in Fitler Square feel more like a neighborhood. How as high-rises skyrocketed around them, Sandy's stayed comfortably the same.
Nick, 66, a bear of a guy, solemnly scanning the booths from the grill. Stella, 61, always with a smile, flitting through the dining room ferrying stacks of plates. When they fought, it was over the good of the customer. It felt like home. There's less and less of that as Center City becomes something new.
For days, regulars have been stopping by to pay their respects.
Jose Huertas, a music promoter who lives at 24th and Spruce, has been coming in for two decades for the grilled chicken and hot sauce, and for so much more than that. When his teenage son died three years ago, Nick and Stella shut the diner doors so his family could eat in privacy.
On Tuesday, Huertas, 38, stopped in not to eat, but to say thank you.
"Thank you for everything you have done for me — through the good and the bad," he said, hugging Stella. "Thank you for treating me like family."
Giovanna Chiti and Beth Tole teared up as they said goodbye. Chiti, originally from Italy, raised three boys in the neighborhood — and on weekends, it was always pancakes at Sandy's. The boys, grown now, came in over the weekend to say goodbye.
Tole first arrived at Sandy's as a transplant from Atlanta.
"Thank you for making Philadelphia feel like my city — like home," she told Stella.
Some customers figured out how to translate their thank-you notes into Greek.
"We lived the American dream," Stella said through her tears — and told of her and her husband's American dream. How Nick and Stella Mitoulis arrived from Greece with $80 in their pockets. How they stood on their feet and worked — worked all those years in the diner. And she told of everything that came from it: the building paid off, two kids through college and into homes, weddings. And now, retirement.
"We want to thank everyone for all the years they supported us," Nick said. "A big, big thank you."
They sold the business, not the building, to two younger restaurateurs, Fredi Loka and George Profi, who both came to Philadelphia from Albania — and worked their way up through the restaurant business. They plan on polishing the place up and offering gourmet Italian while still serving breakfast and lunch.
The two hard workers remind her of Nick, Stella said.
As for Nick, he plans on accompanying Stella to Greece for a long vacation in November. They own a little home in the village they grew up in. Perhaps he'll buy some chickens and sheep, and stay awhile, he jokes with their kids, Costa and Angie.
But first things first. On Wednesday, his first day off after all those years at the grill, he's going to fill up his Toyota and drive — drive from his Delaware County home in whatever direction he feels like. And when he runs out of gas, he's going to fill it up again, and then drive home.
Home to Stella.