“All great stories must have an end, so here it is.”
Tom’s Family Restaurant owner Tom Kataras put it bluntly. He’s been working there since he was 9 years old, and after 65 years of the restaurant's operation, he’s ready to take a break.
Old age, bad knees and a loss of passion are the reasons he says he decided to retire and close up shop.
It’s hard to argue. Kataras works six to seven days a week and has been doing so for decades.
“When you own a business, you don’t really own the business, the business owns you,” Kataras said. “If I was 100 percent Greek, I’d die behind the register, but I’m only part Greek so I’m getting the hell out of here.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking Kataras is completely jaded.
“It’s not like we’re giving up on the community, because we’re not,” Kataras said. “I’m still living in Homewood, I’m still going to be on the village board. It’s just that you need someone who’s young and passionate about a business to run it and I’m not that way anymore.”
It’s hard to see, though. He veils it well. Several times during the interview, he had to jump up and into action. Two chocolate shakes first. An oatmeal order next. Phone calls. Register. More phone calls.
“Tom’s Family Restaurant in beautiful downtown Homewood,” he enthusiastically answers with a smile on his face. “Just another day in paradise,” is how he responded to an inquisitive patron at the register.
Lack of passion? Maybe not entirely. But Kataras deserves a break 10 times over, and that’s what it really comes down to.
“It’s not like we’re hemorrhaging money,” Kataras said. “We’re doing OK, we’re paying our bills … but we’re not growing and the restaurant is at a point where it needs to be redecorated and it’s worn and I don’t want to do it myself.”
But the decision comes with some trepidation. Kataras says he’s mostly concerned about his mother. He or another one of his family members shuttles her back and fourth from Crete to work at the restaurant on a nearly daily basis.
“She’s got her old lady friends (here),” Kataras said. “This is such a big part of mom’s life.”
Still, Kataras remains firm in his decision.
“It’s just time to move on,” he continued. “In the end, it was my choice.”
Tom’s Family Restaurant’s Origin and the Former Homewood Sweet Shop
Kataras said his father and grandfather moved to Homewood from West Pullman in 1947. That’s when they opened up the first iteration of Tom’s Family Restaurant at the corner of Ridge and Dixie, now Global Fusions Home Décor. Then, it was called the Homewood Sweet Shop, and it stayed that way until 1967.
“In '67, my dad moved over here,” Kataras said. “This used to be a big parking lot … my dad bought the parking lot and built (this restaurant).”
Along with the move came a name change, and Tom’s is truly a family restaurant in every sense of the word. According to Kataras, one of his family members is at the restaurant every day of the week excluding a three-hour Tuesday night shift.
“It takes a lot of effort to run a place; it’s not like a normal retail business,” Kataras said. “It can be all-consuming, but if you want to do it right, you have to be here.”
It’s old standbys like the aforementioned that have benefitted the restaurant all these years.
“The thing that’s going to keep a business is customer service,” Kataras said. “We didn’t last 65 years because (of our food)—our food is good—but it wasn’t just our good food, it was that we cared about the community."
A Community Within a Community
“Tom's Restaurant is an iconic part of Homewood,” Homewood Trustee Anne Colton said. “I still can't believe that it's going to close.”
Colton’s disillusion is certainly not unique, but the patron community the restaurant has fostered over the years is. The Tom’s customers are some of the most loyal you can find.
Take Homewood resident John Detrich, for instance. He has been going to Tom’s since the late '70s. He currently visits the restaurant two to three times a week. His standby item is the breakfast No. 4, scrambled with cheese.
“I’ll miss it,” Detrich said. “For me, I feel bad, but for them, I feel good.”
Homewood Trustee Jay Heiferman shared a similar account.
“My brother Gary has eaten lunch at the same counter spot daily for the last 30-plus years,” Heiferman said. “I feel bad for he and all of the other 'dailys.’ Tom's will be sorely missed.”
According to Kataras, some of Tom’s customers eat at the restaurant three times a day.
“A lady just told me a couple days ago, back in the old days—now this goes to my dad—her kid was sick and the doctor prescribed some Coke syrup … she came in and my dad used to give her Coke syrup every time her child got sick,” Kataras said. “This probably happened … 40 years ago. This woman remembers it and she’s still coming in because of that.”
Even the staff is unusually loyal. Waitress Robin Builta has been working at Tom’s for over 10 years.
“First day he told me (of the closing) I went home and cried,” she said. “I’m sure I will again on closing day.”
Daytime manager and cook Norma Lively has been working at Tom’s for 57 years.
“My dad bought her her first pair of shoes,” Kataras said. “She was 17 years old when she started working for us.”
There’s a magnetic sort of comfort at the weathered old diner, as evident in a recollection of Trustee Colton.
“My most vivid memory of his restaurant, one that I will carry with me always, is on September 11, shortly after the Trade Towers fell—that's where my husband and I went,” Colton said. “We wanted to be somewhere near friends, in a safe and comfortable community place, where we could hold on to something familiar on a day where everything else had been turned upside down.”
Kataras says his restaurant is the family version of the “Cheers” bar. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to let go.
“A lot of people are saying they’re really sad because, where are they going to go now?” Kataras said. “I don’t know what to tell them, but a lot of people say, ‘you worked your butt off, you deserve it, God bless you and have a nice long retirement.' I think people understand.”
What Lies Ahead?
Kataras is eagerly awaiting retirement, specifically so he can follow his passion: boating. He excitedly showed off a photo of his 43-foot Ocean Alexander yacht. He's looking forward to going on an extended cruise.
As for the restaurant, Tom says he’s not particularly concerned with the next place that moves into the location except for one contingency.
“Not another beautician!” he joked. “Not really—I just want it to be successful.”
No matter what goes in, it will be hard to fill the shoes of such a prominent piece of the community for so many years. Kataras maintains an attitude that you seldom find in the food service industry these days.
“You gotta love what you’re doing and love the people that you’re taking care of," Kataras said. "Most of the customers we’ve done a pretty good job with. We’ve disappointed a few, I’m sure, but you give it your best shot.”
There’s no doubt, for 65 consistent years, the Kataras family absolutely did.
Tom's last day of business will be May 1. The doors will close for the last time at 3 p.m.