Family ties unravel at Falmouth House of Pizza

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FALMOUTH — Friday will be the last day of business for the landmark Falmouth House of Pizza – at least at its current location.

After more than 40 years, owners Steve and Antonia Sotiropoulos are being forced to make some hard choices. A family rift and the lack of a lease are pushing them out of their longtime space at the Falmouth Shopping Center on Route 1.

Since the announcement April 19 of the impending closure of one of the town’s oldest and most popular eateries, Antonia Sotiropoulos said customers have expressed their dismay and their determination to follow the restaurant wherever it goes.

On Tuesday she said her customers are very loyal. “We have a very good product and we hope to do well and stay a part of this community,” Sotiropoulos said.

Complicating matters, however, is a plan by the couple’s oldest son, George, to open a new pizzeria in the same spot where his parents spent so many years building their business.

George Sotiropoulos said he and his business partner, Vigo Agalarov, plan to open the Foreside House of Pizza in the next few weeks.

They intend to add new items to the menu, including a wider selection of traditional Greek dishes, along with what he called “European desserts,” and other options such as slices of pizza for lunch and a special kid’s corner.

Why the original restaurant is being asked to leave the shopping center, while George Sotiropoulos’ new business is welcome, is not clear.

Portland lawyer and Sotiropoulos family friend Harold Pachios on Tuesday said Steve and Antonia Sotiropoulos hoped their three sons – George, Lee and Nicholas – would be able to “share and share alike” in the success of the Falmouth House of Pizza.

Pachios said George Sotiropoulos was offered 50% ownership of the pizzeria now, with full financial and management authority, and 100% ownership of the shop in 15 years. But he turned that down.

According to Pachios, George Sotiropoulos wanted full ownership of the restaurant now and would not agree to a more gradual takeover.

Pachios called George Sotiropoulos “a great kid,” but said what he’s doing amounts to a hostile takeover – an attempt to grab the iconic business from his parents.

Pachios said the situation is “a tragedy,” but without a lease the elder Sotiropouloses had no grounds to fight their eviction by the shopping center’s new owners, Jonathan Cohen and Joseph Soley.

Cohen and Soley bought the center a year ago for $21 million. Soon after, Cohen approached the town with an ambitious redevelopment plan that included a sports complex, new retail and office space, a hotel and residential housing.

That plan stalled because there were not enough votes on the Town Council to support a zoning change Cohen has said is necessary to allow the sports complex to quickly move forward.

Cohen would not comment on the Falmouth House of Pizza situation this week, but George Sotiropoulos said he’s getting ready to sign a long-term lease with Cohen as soon as the Falmouth House of Pizza moves out.

According to the eviction notice, which was hand delivered to Steve and Antonia Sotiropoulos, the couple has until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, to vacate the premises.

Pachios said several attempts were made by Steve and Antonia Sotiropoulos, along with their other two sons, to “work something out,” but it just couldn’t be done because both Cohen and George Sotiropoulos were making demands that the restaurant be leased only to George.

Pachios said a lawyer from his firm, Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, tried to negotiate a new lease with Cohen. But Cohen told him he “will not lease to Steve and Antonia,” Pachios said. “The landlord just wouldn’t do it, he refused, unless George was the owner.”

Pachios said what’s been frustrating is that Steve and Antonia Sotiropoulos have never missed a monthly rent payment – even lacking an up-to-date lease – since they opened the restaurant and they were even prepared to swallow the proposed 40 percent increase.

For now, Antonia Sotiropoulos said she and her other sons are doing the best they can to keep the Falmouth House of Pizza going until Friday and then getting everything out – from kitchen equipment to tables and chairs – no later than the April 30 deadline.

Sotiropoulos said the family is trying to find a suitable new location quickly. Still, she said, “I didn’t want it to end like this. I’m sad and upset. This is home to me.”

George Sotiropoulos said this week that the situation he and his family find themselves in is not what he wanted, either.

He said he’s had a longtime dream of owning and operating the Falmouth House of Pizza and growing and expanding the business, which, he said, he’s essentially been running since about 2007.

That’s around the time his parents opened Antonia’s Pizzeria on Lower Main Street in Freeport. This week George said he “stayed on in Falmouth solo,” as the family focused on building up the new business.

His youngest brother, Nicholas Sotiropoulos, is also preparing a new eatery in the former Nina’s Variety store at the corner of Bucknam and Middle roads.

George said his father, who is 74, has had health issues, including a stroke nearly five years ago. Steve Sotiropoulos also has dementia, which may be a reason the Falmouth Shopping Center lease lapsed in 2016, George said.

It wasn’t until Cohen’s bank needed documentation from his tenants that all sides learned the family had been running the business as month-to-month tenants for the past three years.

Antonia Sotiropoulos said she always left such details to her husband and George, saying she was shocked to learn the lease had lapsed and there was no legal recourse to fight the eviction.

“I trusted George to be here” to take care of those types of details, she said.

George Sotiropoulos said this week that he had every intention of honoring his parents’ legacy and “taking care of them.”

He said he offered them “seven figures” for the business, but that offer was rejected.

George Sotiropoulos and his wife Miekal also own and operate Salty Dog Adventures, a dog day-care business that’s also in the Falmouth Shopping Center.

George said he and Cohen talked about his long-term goals, but other than that he wasn’t involved in any of the lease negotiations between his parents and Cohen.

Relations with his family have been tense and have gone downhill since he was married in 2012, George said, and earlier this year it became impossible for him to continue to work at the Falmouth House of Pizza with his mother.

He left the restaurant at the end of January. “I never wanted this to happen,” he said. “I didn’t manipulate anything. I’m not one to play games and I’ve always tried to be honest and straightforward.”

And while the rest of the Sotiropoulos family has talked about how important it was to them to work together for the benefit of all, as one united front, this week George said it’s his own wife and children that come first.

“A family business can be very difficult. It can get complicated,” he added. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out no matter how hard you try.”

He said he hopes people in Falmouth will give his new pizzeria a try and will not be “judgmental and will understand and give us a chance.”

Both Antonia and George Sotiropoulos said this week that their love for each other has not abated, with Antonia saying her son is a “wonderful man with a good heart.”

But Lee Sotiropoulos, the third brother, said that if George wants to choose “distrust” and “shattering the family,” there’s nothing he can do.

“He chose the path of destruction,” Lee Sotiropoulos said. “It can be tough dynamics when your mother acts like your mother and not your business partner, but the reality is that our mother and father started this business.

“This is sad,” he said. “This is really terrible and not good for anyone.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

 

After more than 40 years in business, the Falmouth House of Pizza must leave the Falmouth Shopping Center. It will close Friday, April 26, although the owners hope to reopen soon in a new location.

 

Antonia Sotiropoulos, who has owned and operated the Falmouth House of Pizza with her husband for more than 40 years: “I didn’t want it to end like this. I’m sad and upset. This is home to me.”

 

George Sotiropoulos, right, and partner Vigo Agalarov, left, are preparing to lease the same spot where Sotiropoulos’ parents have been in business, in the Falmouth Shopping Center, for what they will call the Foreside House of Pizza. Also pictured are both men’s families, including their wives, Khavar Agalarov, second from left, and Miekal Sotiropoulos.

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