SCHENECTADY — John Papanikos was always a spiritual man.
“Despite his hardships, despite his respiratory problems, he would never dwell on that,” said Dennis Plakas of his uncle, the longtime owner of Schenectady’s Newest Lunch restaurant. “He wouldn’t want you to feel bad for him.
“He would say, ‘How are the kids? How are you feeling? Stay close to God. Don’t forget to pray,'” Plakas added. “While other people might want pity, he wanted to continue to raise your spirits up.”
Papanikos, 65, died last Saturday in Greece, where family members said he had been living for the past two years. Papanikos had many friends who made regular visits to Newest Lunch, the Albany Street landmark he bought in 1987.
Plakas said family members learned about Papanikos’ death on Sunday. He said respiratory issues were a factor.
“It just progressed to a point where it left him in a position where he couldn’t really move any more,” Plakas said. “He was living here in Schenectady and when he went back to his home country of Greece, his health got so bad he wasn’t able to come back to America.”
Plakas said Papanikos had been living in the town of Amfilochia, situated by the Ambracian Gulf, and was near several family members.
“It’s been very difficult trying to get there, trying to get him help, he was in the mountains of Greece, four hours from Athens,” Plakas said. “So for somebody who has trouble breathing, to get him into a car, drive four hours, from Athens to JFK (John F. Kennedy International Airport), JFK to Albany, that’s such a daunting task.”
Plakas added that coronavirus was not a factor in his uncle’s death. “They don’t have a lot of cases in the entire country,” he said.
Papanikos was well known for the narrow, diner-style restaurant near the bottom of the Albany Street hill, just off Veeder Avenue and located between Georgetta Dix Plaza and Germania Avenue. Newest Lunch has been open since 1921, always in the same location and always operated by Greek restaurateurs.
Papanikos spent plenty of time in the place.
“He would lead by example,” Plakas said. “He was the first one there and the last one to leave. If he opened up at 7 a.m., he was there by 5:30 in the morning. He’d work, go home, take a nap, come back and work until 7 o’clock.
“Then they had a pizza place next door that would stay open until 10,” Plakas added, “so he’s be there until 10 o’clock at night.”
The pizzeria, Newest Pizza, closed when Papanikos moved from Niskayuna to Greece.
“Nobody could handle the hours that he was doing,” Plakas said. “He was a machine.”
While Papanikos was good at the grill, he was great at family.
“Above all else, he was about family,” Plakas said. “That was his end game, to be a stepping stone to others.”
Gus Papanikos, who owns Union Pizza on Nott Street in Schenectady, said his brother was a good man.
“He was always doing good things for everybody,” Papanikos said. “There is not a person who has anything bad to say about my brother. He raised seven kids, he was a kind man.”
George Plakas, Dennis’ brother, now owns Newest Lunch. He said many customers remember Papanikos.
“The guy was a staple there since the mid-’80s,” Plakas said. “He leaves a lasting impression, he’s kind of one of those human beings.
“Most people who saw him on a regular basis are going to associate him with hard work,” Plakas added. “He was literally there at the crack of dawn, six, seven days a week. The guy never stopped, never ever stopped working.”
George Plakas, like his brother, said Papanikos will be remembered for his heart and spirituality.
“Selfless,” Plakas said. “If you wanted to have a conversation about God, there’s the guy you want to have it with. He could go on for hours and hours.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected]