When Angelo Stavropoulos walked into a room, he instantly owned it.
His loud, powerful presence drew the attention of everyone around him. Dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit — or wearing colors as loud as he was after a fishing trip — Mr. Stavropoulos did everything he could to make others laugh and feel at home.
And that is exactly what he did at Peconic Bay Diner in Riverhead. The restaurant he owned and operated since 1992 was the epitome of a family establishment: not only do his wife and children work there, the employees and customers who frequent there have been immersed in a unique family fostered by his diner.
Now, they are all in mourning after he died suddenly Monday afternoon, when his car struck a tree on Main Road in Laurel. The Riverhead resident was 68.
“The diner became a home, a healing place,” longtime customer Rachel Derry said. After her father’s death a few years ago, Ms. Derry said the Stavropoulos’s were their “family in our time of need.”
Cynthia Accomando and Gabriel Morales, two diner employees for more than a decade, described Mr. Stavropoulos as a father to them. His strong family values and profound care for others were evident wherever he went, they said.
Born Feb. 27, 1954, in Greece, Mr. Stavropoulos grew up in poverty with his family of 10. All living in a single concrete room, he had a close relationship with his family during his early life and attended a technical high school. He immigrated to the United States around 1980 when his brother was able to financially sponsor him.
His son, Lazaros, said he came to America speaking no English and with nothing more than “a single coin in his pocket.”
He had a few jobs as a bus boy and painter with his brother, and in 1981 started working at the Sea Coral diner in Hauppauge. While there, he fell for the owner’s niece, his future bride-to-be, Chrissy Konstantatos.
“He would come in, and of course seeing him my heart went pitter-patter,” Ms. Stavropoulos said. “We started talking … and then started dating after.”
The couple married in 1983 and had three children: Lazaros, Eleni and Chloe. In 1991, he and his wife bought their own diner together, and by April the following year, Peconic Bay Diner opened for business.
Lazaros said his father wasn’t around much when they were growing up, and although that was difficult at times, he understood how much his father was sacrificing for their future by devoting so much time to his work.
“It was to create the life he wanted for us because he grew up in poverty,” Lazaros said. “That was always his thought, ‘What could I do for my kids?’”
Lazaros said the lessons his father taught him and his sisters growing up changed over the years as Mr. Stavropoulos went through life himself. Childhood lessons included “Don’t be a sucker,” and “Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.” As everyone got older, he used to say, “Make sure you save money,” and “always be honest.”
However, the greatest lesson he taught his family as he aged was to enjoy life.
“Live life to the fullest, it’s too short,” they said.
Following his own mantras, he always saved enough money to take his family to Greece every summer, making sure they remembered their heritage and appreciated the life they were fortunate to have in America.
When he wasn’t busy fixing something at the diner or asking Mr. Morales to make him onion rings and slice his meat thin, Mr. Stavropoulos loved to fish, collect antique items from tag sales and maintain the gardens outside of his restaurant and home.
“He loved anything outdoors,” Chloe said. “If he could be with hands in the dirt all day, he would.”
When his wife told him to stop buying her roses on special occasions and not waste his money, he decided to plant five or six rose bushes in their yard instead.
Described by many as a kind soul with the biggest heart, Mr. Stavropoulos went out of his way to always ensure his community was well taken care of.
“It wasn’t just his family, it was everybody,” Eleni said. “People would come in, ‘I ain’t got a dollar man, what can I get?’ and he would give them a five-course meal. He gave everything he could to people, he gave them his all.”
The Stavropoulos’s have countless stories of him delivering food to regulars in the middle of snowstorms, calling to check in if he hadn’t seen them in a few days and bringing flowers into the diner for his wife to set on the front counter.
Ms. Derry shared that one of her favorite memories with Mr. Stavropoulos was one Sunday morning breakfast when he came over to their usual table, took off his suit jacket and sat down for their whole meal, talking and eating with them. He even paid for the meal at the end.
“One of his big quotes was ‘One hand washes the other,’ ” Eleni said. “That’s why everybody is like a family member to us … He understood that he wasn’t alone in this life. He needed people and they needed him.”
Mr. Stavropoulos was not the kind of owner to take a quick lap around the diner and make sure everything was running smoothly — he would walk around holding a pot of coffee, refilling mugs and pulling up a chair to sit and connect with familiar faces.
Choruses of “What are you doing?” could be heard when he was up to his usual stunts — banging on the front door of waitress Diane Owen’s house at 8 a.m. to drop off firewood; laying in the middle of the parking lot in front of Ms. Derry’s car to collect her “insurance money”; asking his employees to take his picture while he held up his catches of the morning.
“You see, I give you guys something to laugh about,” he would say to his family.
Lazaros says he can almost hear his father saying something along the lines of, “One day when I’m gone, you guys will remember this.”
But if there was anything Mr. Stavropoulos could possibly love more than his children and diner, it was his grandkids.
“He found his role in life being a grandfather, his purpose in life,” Eleni said. When one of his grandsons said he liked apples, he planted eight apple trees in his backyard.
“He came to my house on Sunday and said to me and my husband, ‘Hurry up and have kids so we can take care of them,’” Chloe added.
An impressionable and unforgettable man, the passion and love he had for those around him is palpable by the ever-growing family he left behind.
A Facebook post from Peconic Bay Diner announcing his death has been flooded with hundreds of comments of high praise for Mr. Stavropoulos, describing him as an exceptional boss, neighbor and friend to all. The family he built will remember him dearly and feel his loss deeply, as he touched so many of the lives around him.
To the community, Eleni says, “Thanks for experiencing him with us. Thanks for growing with us all as a family.” To the Stavropoulos’s, Ms. Derry says “Let us be the family now. You’ve given us a home.”
The family will receive visitors Thursday, June 23, from 3 to 8 p.m. at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead. A funeral service will take place at 11 a.m. Friday, June 24, at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church in Blue Point, followed by interment at Commack Cemetery.
Memorial donations may be made to the American Heart Association.