Mark Pappas was penniless and spoke no English when he emigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Greece in his-mid-20s in 1956.
"That was 60 years back," he marveled July 30, wearing a state of Maryland tie while waiting to be honored by the state and Baltimore County for 55 years in the restaurant business.
Today, at 83, his English is more than passable and his three Pappas restaurants, plus a seafood carryout and a liquor store, have collective sales of $22 million a year, according to his son, Steve Pappas, 48, who is chief executive officer of Pappas Enterprises.
The senior Pappas is also rich in family, which includes his wife of 53 years, Harriet; a daughter, Tina; another son, Zinon, who is a doctor in Frederick; and seven grandchildren. Tina, a former teacher, and her husband, Justin Windle, managing partner of the newest Pappas restaurant, in the Cranbrook Shopping Center in Cockeysville, live with their four children, ages 6-12, in a house next to Mark and Harriet Pappas, in Lutherville.
Mark Pappas also owns homes in Ocean City and in Naples, Fla., where he is described as a snowbird.
As Mark Pappas waited with 140 invited guests for the award ceremony to begin at the Cockeysville restaurant, the rags-to-riches restaurateur appeared much more interested in talking about family than money. He said his family is key to his continuing success.
"I'm very happy because my son finished college," he said, referring to Steve Pappas, who graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with a degree in Archaeology. "If he did not come into the business, we would sell it."
Born Mark Papazisoglou in 1932 in Velvendos, a village in northern Greece, he served in the Greek Army for two years and then came to Baltimore, where he had relatives, to seek a better life during a civil war and poverty that engulfed his homeland after World War II.
"It was a time to escape all that," said Windle, 40, helping to tell his father-in-law's Horatio Alger story.
Pappas shortened his surname and worked for more than four years for his uncle, Harry Pappas, who ran a bus station eatery, which is where he met his future wife.
"I would take the bus to Annapolis" to visit family members," Harriet Pappas said. "He was there serving (food) at the counter."
For many Greek immigrants at the time, working for a restaurant was a natural fit because restaurants symbolized "hard work," Mark Pappas said.
"And you didn't have to speak much English," his wife said.
Harriet Pappas had emigrated from Greece in 1959 — "to find me," her husband joked.
In 1961, Mark Pappas and a partner bought the Mount Vernon Restaurant, and in 1972, Pappas took over Wargo's Western Steak House & Stag Bar in Parkville, renaming it Pappas Restaurant & Sports Bar.
Now, the Pappas restaurants, including one in Glen Burnie, are known for their crab cakes, which are based on a recipe by Mark Pappas' cousin, Tom Annos, who worked for the now-closed Dupont Restaurant in Wilmington, Del., according to Pappas.
The "Colossal" lump meat crab cakes, with a secret ingredient that Pappas added to the original recipe, now account for 70 percent of sales and the family ships them around the world. Fans include former Baltimorean Oprah Winfrey, who posted a photo of one of the crab cakes on Instagram in April and wrote, "Worth it!"
"People are eating our crab cakes every day," Steve Pappas said.
The 55th anniversary celebration last week was more than just a family affair — and a celebration not just of Pappas' financial success, but of him as the embodiment of an immigrant who rose to the top.
"We are here to talk about the American dream," said television personality Richard Sher, who served as emcee and wore a red, white and blue tie.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who recently announced he has cancer, was supposed to attend, but was ill, organizers said. Standing in for the governor was Maryland Secretary of Business and Economic Development R. Michael Gill.
Baltimore Countians on hand included former state Insurance Commissioner and former state delegate Al Redmer Jr., former delegate Helen Bentley and former county District Court Judge John Rellas, who said he came because, "My friend invited me. He's a super human being. You'll never hear a bad word from Mark."
Also attending was County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who said he has known the family for 30 years and that Pappas "embodies" a strong work ethic.
"I'm so excited he's still active and the businesses are so successful," Kamenetz said.
Pappas is indeed active, going to work every day at the Parkville restaurant, according to his family.
"It's part of his life," Windle said. "He wouldn't have it any other way."
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And he was itching to mingle with the crowd of well-wishers.
"I'm going to put a name tag on you," his daughter said.
Steve Davis said the family is considering opening more restaurants, possibly in Bel Air, Ocean City, and Columbia or Ellicott City.
"Right now, it's all about consolidating the businesses we have," Steve Pappas said. "Then, we're ready to go to the next step, if we want."
Pappas is proud of how far he has come, as a family man and a business owner.
"The best things happened to me," he said.
The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.