Nick had tried to broach the issue gingerly with Stella. During their weary-eyed, predawn commutes to get in and opened for breakfast. During the lulls after the craziness of the lunch rush. During their nightly supermarket trips to gather ingredients for the next day's baklava and spanakopita.
When Nick could wait no longer, he sat Stella down in a booth by the window in Sandy's Restaurant, the Center City diner they have owned for 20 years, and came right out with it.
"It's time," said Nick, a big, amiable bear of a guy. Stella, the floor captain, understood.
After more than 30 years working side by side, first at a restaurant they owned in University City, then at Sandy's, the time had arrived for Nick and Stella Mitoulis to retire.
"This is it," Nick said on that January day. "I am too tired."
This is the story of a diner. Sandy's, a beloved corner spot at 24th and Locust, has long helped make a few blocks of Fitler Square feel more like a neighborhood.
This is also a love story. One written on decades of diner napkins and set to the soft strains of the Yanni tunes that Nick likes to play on the small radio he keeps on the counter. It is the story of Nick and Stella. Or Stella and Nick. Because as Stella says: There is no Stella without Nick and there is no Nick without Stella.
That's how it's always been: Nick steady and solemn at the grill, Stella cheery and welcoming as she pinballs from table to counter to cash register. Seven days a week, except for Christmas.
So, on that January day, Stella did not argue.
"If Nick retires, Stella retires, too," she says to me.
Postcards of Avgerinos decorate the walls. That small village in northern Greece where Nick and Stella grew up is where our story begins. After serving in the Greek army, Nick came to Philly. He washed dishes at Fiesta Pizza Jr., a 175-or-so-seat restaurant at 38th and Walnut. In three years, Nick was a partner.
Nick went back to Avgerinos for Stella. They were married on a warm July day in an old church surrounded by the mountains. Stella joined Nick in the restaurant. They bought a home in Delaware County. They had two children: Angie and Costa. Nick was looking for someplace small – something he and Stella could manage on their own. The doughnut delivery man mentioned a tiny diner for sale in Fitler Square.
They kept the name, but spruced up the place. They hung the postcards and a picture of the old church surrounded by the mountains.
The booths filled.
"The neighborhood hugged us right away," Stella says.
Back then, Nick and Stella fed the construction crews building the wave of apartment houses to transform Fitler Square – and the developers developing them.
"They have great food and warm smiles," said Carl Dranoff, who became a regular at Sandy's in 1998 when building the Locust on the Park apartments across the street. "It's like eating at your parents'."
Now crews fill Sandy's again, with Stella never correcting the ones who call her Sandy, as construction nears completion on the One Riverside condominium tower along the river.
Through the years it's been a family thing, with the kids working weekends, and Stella making fresh baklava at night from her mother Aphrodite's recipe: cooked rolled, not flat, so it doesn't grow soggy, and added orange peels for zest.
The old clock above the Coke machine stopped running three times over the years, but Nick, who is 65, never missed a day.
"Nick is not allowed to be broke," he said.
That January day, Nick made his case: The kids are fine, great, in fact. Angie's a biologist, Costa's a project manager for a bank. They could spend time with the grandkids. They could travel.
Nick wants to see the Holy Land. He wants to stand where Christ stood, he said as scrapple sizzled on the grill.
"Stella, we're going to be together," Nick told her, and that's all that mattered.