Updated 2:38 p.m.
Monday, Jun. 6, will be the last day for Midtown II Restaurant, which is closing its doors after 32 years of 24-hour service at the corner of 11th and Sansom streets.
Owner Gus Hionas, 67, says he was essentially forced to sell the property when business dropped nearly 40 percent after a Feb. 3 story in the Inquirer detailed health code violations at the diner.
“My customers are all from Jefferson hospital, it’s right there,” Hionas says. “They are very conscientious about these things. They don’t forget.”
The Inquirer article, about Philadelphia health inspectors’ newly-given authority to shut down restaurants if they found sanitation issues that posed a “public threat,” said that Midtown II had been issued a cease-and-desist order for “conditions that included fly larva crawling in a bucket of coleslaw, employees touching food with bare hands, and improperly refrigerated food.”
Hionas disputes the inspectors’ findings. “They said we had worms! I can tell you I have never had worms here. I’ve been in this business 44 years, I know what I’m doing,” says the native of Chios, Greece, who emigrated to the U.S. with his brother in 1971 and opened the first Midtown Restaurant at 702 Sansom in 1973. He went on to open three other Midtowns across the city, although the 11th street location is the only one he still runs (Midtown III is operated by his sister-in-law and nieces).
Hionas believes he was unfairly targeted by health inspectors because developers of nearby parking lots wanted to buy his property, but he had previously refused to sell.
“The health inspectors, they used to come and never have any problems. Then all of a sudden they started showing up here all the time,” he says. “One time they’ll tell me to put some equipment in a certain spot, then the next time they tell me that’s the wrong spot and I’m in violation.” He’s been proactive about cleanliness issues, he says, noting that in 2000 he spent $800,000 to put steel in all the diner’s walls to keep out the rodents that run rampant in city sewers. Update: A search of the Inquirer’s “Clean Plates” health inspections database, which goes back to 2009, shows 14 reports with violations for Midtown II filed over the past seven years.
“Philadelphia is not going to have any more homemade soups or meals anymore, the way they are running things. They are just killing the mom-and-pop businesses.”
Because of a recent real estate deal gone bad in Vineland, N.J., in which he says he lost close to $8 million, Hionas had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He had been operating Midtown II and using its revenue to pay back liens against it, but when business took a dive after the Inquirer article, he decided the struggle was no longer worth it. Hionas is not even sure of the name of the buyer — “one of those guys who buys notes on bankruptcy loans at auction” — but does believe $2.3 million was the price paid.
According to Hionas, he has already found jobs for the majority of the 32 full-time and 15 part-time Midtown II employees, some of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than 25 years.
Hionas also owns the Meadows Diner in Blackwood, N.J., but plans to hand over operation of that business to his three children, and look for a small pizzeria to run, “so I stay out of their hair — just as something for me to do.”
He will not be looking at locations in Philadelphia, however.
“I’ve served this city for decades. I was here 24 hours a day when this area was a ghost town,” he says. “And this is how they repay me?”