The "H" and "S" of his company's name come from his brother-in-law, Harry Tsakalos, and Paterakis' father, Isidoros "Steve" Paterakis, who started the bakery in 1943 in the basement and first floor of the family's 12-foot-wide rowhouse on Ashland Avenue near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
John Paterakis, his father and his mother, Kyriaki ("Clara"), mixed and shaped dough by hand in the basement. Steve Paterakis baked. Steve's daughter, Liberty, worked the bakery's counter. Her husband, Harry, delivered.
"I didn't go to college," said John Paterakis, a 1947 graduate of Patterson Park High School. "I was going to go to college, but my father got sick, and so I took over the family business. After a while, I was making $20,000 a year, and that was a lot of money in the 1950s. So, I thought: Why go to college with this kind of money coming in?"
Over the years, Paterakis watched as a growing number of family bakeries like his were crushed by competition from supermarkets. Instead of fighting the trend toward mechanized bread-making, Paterakis mastered it by coming up with a process for mass-producing specialty items such as Italian bread, French bread and kaiser rolls, normally made by small, neighborhood bakeries. No one else had done it.
He'd often spend money for baking equipment before he had supermarkets willing to buy his bread. In 1954, he landed his first big supermarket account with Food Fair. "Everything we've ever done, we've done on chance," Paterakis said. "You've got to keep spending money to keep updating to remain competitive. If you don't keep up, the big fish will eat you."
Now Paterakis is the big fish.
Not only does his family run the largest privately owned bakery in the United States, but he built a distribution center for McDonald's in Ireland and supervises production of rolls for the company in Singapore and India. He also supplies many of the baked goods for the Giant, Super Fresh, Shop Rite and Pathmark chains.
Friends describe Paterakis - who talks in the blunt, working-class style of his native Highlandtown - as a detail-obsessed workaholic who puts in 20 hours a day, even coming into the office on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
He avoids the press and loves playing high-stakes poker with a close circle of friends and donating large sums to the Cathedral of the Annunciation on Preston Street and other Greek Orthodox churches.
"I play poker sometimes, sure," said Paterakis. "But, look. When you play cards, you can lose $100 or so. But when you build a hotel, you could lose $100 million. Now that's risk."
Konstantine J. "Gus" Prevas, a friend and lawyer to Paterakis for almost a half-century, said: "If it took brains to be successful, all college professors would be millionaires. John is a very decisive type of person, and he doesn't always take advice."
Despite his personal fortune, Paterakis favors open-collar shirts over suits and until recently was so frugal he drove a worn-looking tan-and-green Lincoln that had more than 200,000 miles on it and an engine that had been replaced three times.
With his quiet, low-key demeanor, Paterakis is something of an opposite to the city's other Greek-American powerhouse from East Baltimore, Peter G. Angelos, the mercurial owner of the Orioles.
"I contrast John with Peter Angelos, who is very outgoing, always out front and seems to like the newspaper publicity," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the state comptroller. "They both do good things for the city, but John is much more laid-back, and he doesn't like to be recognized as a leader. But he is."
Paterakis has also earned a nickname as a political "bread man."
He's a behind-the-scenes heavyweight whose fund raising has helped politicians including the late governor and vice president Spiro T. Agnew, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, Sen. Paul Sarbanes and former mayors Schaefer and Kurt Schmoke.
Anthony J. Ambridge, the city's real estate officer who served as a 2nd District city councilman from 1983 to 1995, recalled one example of Paterakis' frequent attempts to help Greek-American politicians.
"I remember one time John gave me a call and said, `Tony, come to my office; I want you to meet someone.' I went over there, and sitting there with him was Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who, of course, at the time was running for president," Ambridge recalled. "John said, `He's too liberal for me, but you'll love him, Tony.'"
With the help of Ambridge and others, Paterakis held a fund-raiser at the Omni Hotel that raised more than $250,000 for Dukakis' candidacy in 48 hours.