It’s back to business at Yianni’s

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Ann Richardson / Two weeks ago, Yianni’s reopened and one of its first customers was none other than Santa Claus, who enjoyed a delicious breakfast on Sunday morning while greeting local children. Signanos couldn’t have been happier.  Ann Richardson / Two weeks ago, Yianni’s reopened and one of its first customers was none other than Santa Claus, who enjoyed a delicious breakfast on Sunday morning while greeting local children. Signanos couldn’t have been happier.

OCEAN CITY — On the fourth anniversary of the opening of his downtown cafe Nov. 1, Yianni Signanos planned to celebrate, but Hurricane Sandy rained on his parade.

Slamming the New Jersey coast just days before, Sandy flooded Asbury Avenue, dumping more than a foot of water inside Yianni’s Café. So instead of celebrating a milestone, Signanos began the arduous task of starting over; tearing his eatery apart and building it back.

Two weeks ago, Yianni’s reopened and one of its first customers was none other than Santa Claus, who enjoyed a breakfast on Sunday morning while greeting local children. Signanos couldn’t have been happier.    

“Opening this quickly is a miracle,” he said, adding that he had a lot of help and support from the community. “When we support each other, we can do miracles. For this place to come back after six weeks was not easy.

“Everything is new,” he said, and it’s still very much a work in progress.

Soothing shades – lots of browns and blues – in the tile and walls provide a calm, serene atmosphere, he said. “It’s more like a restaurant, before it was like a diner.”

Signanos borrowed tables and chairs from a friend who owns a restaurant in Atlantic City. In time, he said, booths will share space with new seating configurations, but he wants to take his time and do it right.

“I borrowed some things from our boardwalk store, some pictures for the walls, things like that, but this is not the final look,” he said.

Signanos said he hopes to never again see a storm like Sandy.

“When I walked in here, just after the storm, it was horrifying,” he said. “Right away, I had contractors from all over asking me for crazy amounts of money to restore this place.”

Signanos said he was overwhelmed, so he called a friend, John Poularos, who helped him renovate his satellite location, Yianni’s on the Boardwalk, last summer.

“I knew he did good work, he was fair and honest,” he said.

Between his crew and Signanos’ employees working two and three shifts night and day, including weekends, they got the job done.

“It was tough, we missed Halloween and Thanksgiving and part of the Christmas season,” he said.

“We took everything out of the restaurant and tried to clean it, we stored it and it got moldy,” he said. “All of the equipment was cleaned and sanitized, we tried to save that, too, but once it gets hit with salty water, it’s ruined. Maybe it works for a while and then on Fourth of July it breaks down, so what good does it do you? Salt water is dirty water and it kills wires. We decided to throw it all out and start over.”

As terrible as Sandy was, he said some good came out of it.

“The hurricane was a message to us,” Signanos said. “The hurricane showed us a lot of things, like how important our friends are. We need to support each other and in this town there is a lot of support, that’s why we made it.”

Signanos was born in Crete, Greece’s largest island.

“It reminds me of Ocean City,” he said. “Everyone is friendly. It’s a beautiful island.”

In 1990, he moved to Canada to work with his brother in the restaurant business. He met and married his wife, Peggy, who also works in the restaurant. The couple has three daughters, Eleni, who is in college in Montreal, Pinelopi, a freshman in high school and Alexandra, who is in elementary school.

Signanos moved to the United States in 2005 and worked for his cousin, George Signanos.
“He owned a chain of restaurants,” Yianni Signanos said.

In 2008, opportunity knocked and the idea of being his own boss appealed to him.

“I found this great opportunity to own a restaurant in Ocean City,” he said. “I had worked in all aspects of the restaurant business. I learned management, cooking, I had done it all.”

While Signanos envisioned opportunity, others were far less optimistic.

“Everybody said, ‘No one makes it here, what makes you think you can?’” he said. “When I came here I knew no one. I knew a little about Ocean City, that it was dry, no alcohol and it was a resort. I was completely new to town.”

Others warned the Asbury restaurant was snake-bitten, as four owners in five years tumbled through unsuccessfully.

“For me, the question was, ‘Why has no one made it here?’” he said, adding that the location, next to City Hall in a busy downtown block, was ideal. “I put the negative and positive together, I said ‘Lets not make the same mistakes.’”

Signanos said he focused on righting the wrongs by offering a sparkling clean restaurant and excellent, friendly service.

“It had no personality before; there was no welcome, no smile,” he said. “Nobody, but nobody believed we could make it, except for me.”

Signanos opened at 6:30 a.m. on day one with fresh bagels and a hot breakfast and waited patiently as business started building.

“We got through the first week, and customers started coming back,” he said. “We had hot bagels and fresh, homemade soup. We offer big portions, lots of value.”

Signanos, who says he works “eight days a week,” said he attributes his success to hard work.

“As a restaurant owner, you can’t be lazy,” said Signanos, who is often seen busing tables, delivering orders, seating customers and offering a hand in the kitchen. “You have to set a good example.”

When he started offering dinners in May 2009, Signanos said his idea was met with the same pessimistic resistance.

“They said, ‘Are you crazy? No one survives doing dinner,’ yet here we are,” he said. “The first day we had only four customers, but as word got out, we had eight the next day and in one month the place was filled every night.”

Eventually, Signanos opened café satellites at the Community Center and on the boardwalk.

“The long story short is four years after we opened, we have three locations in Ocean City,” Signanos said. “I’m considering a fourth location. I would never change my mind to come to this town, even after the storm.”

Signanos said he wants to help lift others.

“We are offering a $5 to $6 lunch menu to help people,” he said. “We want to be able to offer soup and salad, a sandwich combo for a reasonable, affordable price to help people out. People are really hurting after this storm. Maybe you had damage and maybe you had insurance, but it doesn’t pay anything. A lot of people have been affected, so we’re trying to help.”

Every restaurant has its own personality, he said. The new look suits him.

“This is my baby,” he said. “I’m very grateful to everyone who helped us through this.” 

Ann Richardson / Two weeks ago, Yianni’s reopened and one of its first customers was none other than Santa Claus, who enjoyed a delicious breakfast on Sunday morning while greeting local children. Signanos couldn’t have been happier.  Ann Richardson / Two weeks ago, Yianni’s reopened and one of its first customers was none other than Santa Claus, who enjoyed a delicious breakfast on Sunday morning while greeting local children. Signanos couldn’t have been happier.


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