Since opening the first Mr. Burger Restaurant in 1967, the hard work and ambitions of Peter and Maria Christopoulos have grown into a prosperous family business encompassing six restaurants in West Michigan.
Originally from the small village of Dikastron in Central Greece, the young Peter Christopoulos grew up in a country that had been shocked by World War II and the Civil War between the Greek government and the Communist Party of Greece.
“I was 19; the worst you could see was war, poverty, suffering,” Peter Christopoulos said. “I was reading about America, how good it is — land of opportunity. And the future was not too good (in Greece), so I came here to get started.”
Christopoulos was able to come to the U.S. on a sponsorship program. His first job was working for his uncle. He worked for about 12 years washing dishes at his uncle’s restaurant before he had saved enough money to purchase his own.
During the 12 years he worked for his uncle, Christopoulos met Maria, who had also come to the U.S. sponsored by her uncle. She was enrolled at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids to study English literature.
“We were both from the same village,” Maria Christopoulos said. “(Peter) was a good worker, honest, somebody that I could trust.”
Peter and Maria Christopoulos married in 1963, four years before they opened their first restaurant. For the first few years of their marriage, they had to carefully budget their money.
What would eventually become the first Mr. Burger on Lake Michigan Drive was a Dog n’ Suds restaurant that had gone bankrupt multiple times before the Christopouloses took up ownership.
After about three years of working at Dog n’ Suds, Maria and Peter Christopoulos wanted more freedom to run their business. They were tired of paying the company and making very little money for selling what they viewed to be low-quality food.
“It wasn’t good,” Maria Christopoulos said. “We could do better — better chili, better hot dogs.”
The Christopouloses had to hire an attorney after Dog n’ Suds threatened them with legal action if they tried to separate, but the threats amounted to nothing.
Trying to run a business in the beginning was difficult with very little money and children to take care of. Their children would often play in the back while their parents managed the front.
“We grew up in the back of the restaurant,” Jim Christopoulos said. “Mary Baar, our longest standing employee, she used to bring hand-me-down toys from her nieces and nephews because she felt sorry for us.”
Though money was tight, taking full ownership of the restaurant allowed Peter and Maria Christopoulos to focus on preparing their own higher-quality food to attract loyal customers. Maria Christopoulos would work in the back baking five or six pies per day and cooking her own bean and lentil soup.
“People came and said, ‘That was the most delicious soup that I’d ever had,’” Maria Christopoulos said. “And I was very satisfied to know that they’re going to come back.”
The name “Mr. Burger” and the restaurant logo, a burger with a bow tie and top hat, are Peter Christopoulos’ brainchild. He conceived the idea while making doodles on a napkin.
“I’m good at drawing,” he affirmed.
The Lake Michigan Drive Mr. Burger changed little from its Dog n’ Suds days. The Christopouloses remodeled the building three times before deciding it was simply too small for their needs. They demolished the old building and had a larger one built in 1987.
Their youngest son, Andrew, 6 years old at the time, relished the idea of swinging a crow bar and knocking holes in the old building’s walls.
“They just gave me a crowbar, and I was just like, ‘What is this?’” Andrew Christopoulos said. “That was awesome.”
Between 1981 and 2007, they opened five more Mr. Burger restaurants in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.
Peter and Maria Christopoulos attribute much of their success to the hard work and dedication of their employees and wanted to ensure they are recognized for it. They began providing health insurance and paid vacation decades before it became a government mandate.
All of their managers are promoted from within. When Jim Christopoulos graduated from college, he left to work in Washington D.C. for 14 years and came back to find the same people who were working at Mr. Burger when he left.
“I didn’t have to meet any of the managers of the restaurants because they were all working there before I left,” he said.
One of their long-standing workers, Deno Stamas, worked with them since the first Mr. Burger opened and became store manager of their second location on 44th Street in Wyoming.
“You got to take care of your employees,” Jim Christopoulos said. “Happy employees make happy customers.”
Maria and Peter Christopoulos still come into work every day, though they’ve slowed down and begun turning responsibilities over to their children and employees. Their eldest daughter, Helene, isn’t directly involved with the business but helps with some of the decision-making. The parents still check inventory, making sure the food is fresh and making sure the restrooms are clean.
The Christopoulos family is open to the idea of future growth but believe in taking slow, sure steps before making any commitments. They believe serving fresh, quality food in a clean and friendly environment comes first, and when they have the resources and the employees to meet those standards, they’ll look at new prospects.
“It’s not the moon and the stars colliding, but when we get a good property and the right personnel, then it’s time to move,” Jim Christopoulos said.
“People are just very comfortable with the food here,” Andrew Christopoulos said, “and they come to expect a lot of the same type of quality, the same taste, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s like comfort food for a lot of people.”