On the Job: Omelette Factory Is a 'Greek Family Adventure'

The Giforos clan has been around restaurants for decades and has been operating Santee's well-known breakfast and lunch place since 1994.

Jimmy Giforos is a talkative, upbeat, outgoing guy.

But ask him what the hardest part of his job is, and he’s speechless.

He can’t find the words.

He sits quietly at a table inside the – the Santee restaurant he co-owns and manages with his brother, Peter, and several other members of his extended family– and looks stumped.

“The hardest thing? I don’t know,” he says after a long pause. “That’s a tough one.”

The fact is, Giforos, 45, says there’s really nothing about his work he doesn’t like.

Jimmy and Peter and the entire family have so long – their parents had a coffee shop in Chicago when they were young – that he can’t imagine doing anything else. One of his earliest memories is of being in that coffee shop as a boy “trying to make a milkshake” for a customer.

He loved it then and he loves it still. Going to work puts a smile on his face.

“You never see me wake up grouchy,” he says.

Since 1994 when the Omelette Factory opened its doors on Mission Gorge Road – Jimmy remembers the exact date, May 23 – the restaurant has been a family operation, from the photos on the walls to the baking done each morning in the kitchen.

Though Jimmy and Peter are listed as owners and partners, Jimmy says the restaurant belongs to “my whole family.”

Mother Helen, 75, still comes in five mornings a week to do the baking. Pete’s wife, Eleni, and the brothers’ sister, Penny Romensas, have been a big part of the operation since before it even opened, and brother-in-law Manny Santa Maria and niece Christina and nephew Kosta are among the restaurant’s 15 employees.

Time and again as he talks about the restaurant, Jimmy talks about it being a Greek family adventure.

“It’s our heritage,” he says. “We’re used to that, staying together. Sure, we have our little feuds, but you can trust people. Some people tell me, ‘Oh, I couldn’t work with my family.’ We’re used to it. In Greece, you don’t get kicked out of the house when you turn 18. You stick together.”

Adds Peter of working with his family: “It’s a lot of fun. We’ve always been close.”

* * *

Though Jimmy, Peter and Penny grew up in Chicago, their parents Gus and Helen decided to move back to Greece in 1971 to get back to their roots.

“My Dad says, ‘We’re going to Greece. We’re going to the Motherland,’ ” he recalls. Even in Greece, however, the family worked in the restaurant business, with Jimmy’s godparents’ owning a restaurant in the town where they lived.

Between 1979 and  ’82, Giforos family members trickled back to the U.S., deciding to come to Santee to work for their uncle who owned Jimmy’s Family Restaurant at the time.

Eventually, the family came together to open the Omelette Factory.

Jimmy says his mother and Penny saw the place on Mission Gorge all boarded up and suggested they buy it. The building had housed a succession of unsuccessful restaurants featuring everything from Chinese to hot dogs to prime rib.

The Giforoses liked what they saw, bought it and then spent four months completely remodeling the place in time to open in the spring of ’94.

Their vision was to create a family-oriented eatery for breakfast and lunch, and it was a joint effort.

“The way we came up with the menu was we sat down over dinner one day at my brother’s place and we came up with the menu in a couple of hours,” says Jimmy. “Basically that was it.”

Since then, he says, the menu basically has stayed the same – and the restaurant has thrived for 18 years, relying on word of mouth and a cast of repeat customers. On one recent afternoon, Jimmy was in constant conversation with men and women greeting him by name as they came and left, sharing occasional hugs and handshakes.

Though their restaurant has been popular, he says there’s never been any thought to keeping it open for dinner.

It’s open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week. That’s enough.

“Night time is family time,” he says. “If we have to open for dinner, we close the doors down.”

As it is, though he’s in most mornings before the restaurant opens, he can by home by 3 or 3:30 to spend time with his two young children and wife.

That gives him plenty of time to go with his family. And the good thing about sharing his duties with Peter, he says, is they can cover for each other to give their schedule some flexibility, which means neither is faced with mandatory six- and seven-day weeks that can be common in the business.

He says working with Peter, who is four years older, is a good thing.

“Ninety percent of the time it’s great,” he says, smiling. “You know, brothers will butt heads sometimes. We’ve had our arguments. But that’s OK. It’s how close we are. We trust each other.”

And, he says, waving off the idea that it’s he and his brother who are at the top of the Omelette Factory pyramid, “If it’s not for my mom and my sister and the whole family, this place wouldn’t be the way it is.”

* * *

As co-managers, Jimmy and Peter handle the bookkeeping, payroll, scheduling and inventory, and often are at the front of the restaurant greeting customers. But they do whatever is necessary to keep the place running.

Since both have done every job in the place, they don’t mind pitching in.

In fact, says Jimmy, he enjoys it.

“We can jump into and do anything,” he says. “Bus tables, wash dishes, jump into the kitchen… We’re very hands-on owners, we get down and dirty.”

And he believes one of the keys to having a successful place with so many long-time employees – he can’t remember the last time they had to hire someone – is to treat everyone equally.

“Treat the dishwasher like the chef,” he says. “Everyone is important.”

Four years ago, the Giforoses opened a second Omelette Factory, this one in La Mesa, with a new partner. Though it opened the same year the economy crashed, it’s succeeded. Jimmy admits the bad economy has impacted their bottom line since 2008, but believes they’ll ride out the rough times.

“We’re still paying our bills,” he says.

The rough times aren’t the hardest part of the business, however. Though he was at first stumped when asked to pick the biggest challenge, Giforos, after speaking at length, finally has his answer.

It’s trying to satisfy an unsatisfied customer.

“The hardest thing is pleasing a customer that you just can’t please,” he says. “To me that’s hard because I take it personally…

“If they walk out of here unhappy, no matter what I do, I take that personally. I say, what can I do better? But sometimes you just can’t win. You can’t win all of them.”

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