Anna Patsalos said she remembers driving into Wilmington for the first time in the 1970s. She, her husband, James, and son, Nick, were on vacation from New York, visiting friends and fellow restaurateurs down South.
“As soon as we got here we all thought ‘This is where we want to be,’” she said. “I can’t quite explain it.”
The couple, originally from Greece, had been working at their restaurants in Long Island. Jim Patsalos came to the business innately, having been raised in a family that loves to cook.
“It just comes naturally to him and all his brothers and sisters,” Anna Patsalos said. “When I cook, I have to try. They don’t. They just do.”
She worked alongside her husband in New York but soon started thinking about moving to a more family-friendly town. They weren’t in Wilmington long before they were looking at restaurant spaces, including the site at the corner of Oleander Drive and South College Road that was, at the time, a car dealership.
“There was a farm across the road and one traffic light from here to Carolina Beach,” she said.
Jimbo’s – a play on Jim Boss – opened in 1977 and catered to a breakfast-and-lunch clientele as well as diners who wanted good food late at night: shift workers, bargoers and those who got up in the wee hours to hunt and fish.
More than 40 years later, they are still there, every day from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m.
“The secret is good food and good service,” Jim Patsalos said.
Anna Patsalos admits that the first years were difficult. Finding and training the right staff took time. She and Jim would often spend more than 100 hours a week at Jimbo’s. Nick, who was 9 at the time, grew up at the restaurant while his parents worked. He is now one of the family faces running the restaurant and has two teenagers who may one day keep the family legacy going.
When they opened, Wilmington had maybe a handful of restaurants, Anna Patsalos said.
“There are now, what, 2,500?” she joked. “There’s a lot of competition.”
Fans of the restaurant would likely say that consistency has been a key ingredient. Jimbo’s features a lengthy menu of classic American comfort – pancakes, waffles, country ham, omelets, tuna melts, turkey and stuffing, fried shrimp and Salisbury steak – much of which is made in-house.
“I would say we make 98 percent,” Anna Patsalos said, adding that the staff grates fresh potatoes for the hash browns, bakes cakes for dessert and stirs pots of soup on the stove.
She said they’ve also seen a lot of changes in the way people eat. There are always new additions, and they recently added an omelet filled with chorizo, jalapenos and cheese, for example.
“People what to try different things,” she said. “They like different cultures. They want more spice.”
She remembers when Jimbo’s had a bottle or two of hot sauce for the whole restaurant. Now, there’s one on every table.
Anna Patsalos said she’s often talking to diners about their experience.
“There’s always room to improve,” she said.
Two distinct crowds come to the restaurant. During daytime hours, it’s a hectic pace as people come and go between work shifts and on their way to run errands.
“At night, it’s more laid back,” she said. “There’s more time to relax and sit with friends.”
While Jim Patsalos has always wanted to be a part of the restaurant business, Anna Patsalos said she dreamed of being a doctor at one point. She’s learned to love what she does though.
“This is what feeds me, gives me strength,” she said. She particularly enjoys seeing families come together at Jimbo’s. “I’m all about family. It’s really important to the Greek culture. Sometimes there are five generations at one booth. That means everything to me.”
Jimbo’s inspires the same loyalty in its employees. The staff of 25 or so includes those who’ve spent decades working there. For many years, Anna Patsalos said, the nighttime kitchen staff consisted of people who worked there for 30, 35 years. Many of them have passed on.
The restaurant serves a few thousand customers a week.
“We’ve seen millions of people,” Anna Patsalos said. “Millions and millions.”
These days she can take some time off here and there. But even those days might involve a phone call about air conditioning repair or the credit card service. Jim Patsalos, who is now 83, still puts in hours at the restaurant.
“He can’t wait to come in here,” she said. “He sets the alarm every day. How many people his age do that?”
Still he likes the traditions of the business. It was a struggle to get a credit card machine 10 years ago.
“The business has changed. Some people think you can just stop. You can’t. You always have to keep going,” Anna Patsalos said. While the Patsaloses do what they need to keep up, locals appreciate that they’re still sticking to their original mission decades later.
“The people of Wilmington have been so good to us,” Anna Patsalos said. “They are just very loyal people.”
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