John V. Thanoukos, started Hub’s restaurants, dies at 65
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter September 18, 2013 10:13PM
John Thanoukos with his wife, Angie. | Family photo
Updated: October 20, 2013 7:44AM
John V. Thanoukos built his new life in America on gyros meat and tzatziki sauce. One customer appreciated the fragrant Mediterranean merger so much, he worked it into a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”
When Mr. Thanoukos, 65, died Sunday at Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, the church bells rang in his Greek hometown of Stadio, where he was remembered as a generous benefactor.
“He would lend money but never ask for it back,” said his daughter, Vickie Thanoukos. “America was where his dreams came true, but that was where his heart was.”
He started out life farming potatoes in Stadio. He wound up a successful entrepreneur whose Hub’s restaurants inspired Robert Smigel, creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and writer of such classic “SNL” sketches as the Bears Superfans and William Shatner’s “Get a Life” visit to a Star Trek convention.
In 1993, Smigel featured Hub’s in a sketch with mustachioed restaurant workers extolling the magic of “da juice” for gyros. When Jason Alexander asked for more juice for his sandwich, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Rob Schneider and Smigel said conspiratorially, “You like-a da juice, huh?” In another “SNL” episode, Hub’s workers journeyed to Mount Olympus to get more of “da juice.”
“Yes, I created that sketch — a personal favorite — and I used to go to Hub’s when I lived in Chicago,” Smigel said in an email expressing condolences at Mr. Thanoukos’ death. In real life, Smigel said, he didn’t ask for more juice for his gyros — just for his Hub’s Italian beef sandwiches.
Though the sketch’s heyday is over, Smigel said he still hears echoes. “Every now and then when A-Rod comes to the plate, since his steroid scandals, someone shouts at him, ‘You like-a da juice?’ ’’
“When I got the sketch on, I called . . . .Hub’s, and we got them to send a bunch of stuff that we used on the set and for the wardrobe,” Smigel said.
Smigel “liked how my dad had the mustache and the gold chain and the chest hair,” Vickie Thanoukos said. “I guess ‘Saturday Night Live’ was like, ‘We’re going to do a parody of Greek restaurant owners, and how funny they are with their customers.’ ”
Mr. Thanoukos “just loved it,’’ his daughter said, and still sells T-shirts at Hub’s with the “You like-a da juice” catchphrase.
He came to the United States in 1970, accompanied by his mother and his younger brother after the death of his carpenter father. They had relatives around Lincoln Square, then a destination for so many immigrants that conversations all over Greece often included the English phrase “Lawrence-and-Western.”
Mr. Thanoukos worked at restaurants as a dishwasher and short-order cook before the first Hub’s, now owned and operated by a relative, opened in Skokie in 1976. Mr. Thanoukos had a second Hub’s, established in 1981 at 5540 N. Lincoln. Business continued to grow with the creation and sale of a third Hub’s — now “Bub’s” — at 5800 W. Irving Park Rd., and a Niles restaurant, Goodi’s.
“He was really a pioneer,” his daughter said. “The spinning gyros cones were uncommon then. . . . He said, ‘I saw the rotating chicken spits and hardly anybody had them, and I put them in there, and it was a visual.’ ”
He was proud of his tzatziki, a zingy cucumber-and-sour cream sauce. He insisted on quality ingredients.
“His customers were not going to be subjected to a second-rate tzatziki so he could save a nickel,” said his sister-in-law, Frances Kostarelos.
When he met his wife of 40 years, Angie, who had immigrated to America from Greece as a little girl, “It was pretty much love at first sight,” Kostarelos said.
They pushed education for their children and raised a banker, a lawyer and a public relations executive. But all three kept their hands in the restaurant industry. They operate the Hub’s on Lincoln and GRK Kitchens at 219 W. Washington and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Mr. Thanoukos dearly loved his French bulldog, Capone.
“He built a special shower so Capone could have his own bathing area,” his daughter said. “Capone has approximately seven beds in the house. One is an actual house.”
For big parties at home, he enjoyed roasting a whole lamb and often hand-fed his guests the tastiest bits from the spit — even if they said they were vegetarian.
A long procession of Hub’s workers came to visit in his final days. Some wept and kissed his hand, his daughter said.
“He is for me like my father,” said Javier Solis, a native of Mexico who has worked at Hub’s for 23 years. “He never got mad at me. If I need a favor, he [said] ‘When you need it? Let me know.’ ’’
Ljilja Lovric, a Croatian from Bosnia, landed a job with Hub’s in 1998. Mr. Thanoukos took a chance, even though she didn’t speak English. If a customer grew impatient when she didn’t understand, he came to her defense and explained that she was new. “Now, I’m manager here,” she said.
Mr. Thanoukos also is survived by his sons, Billy and Peter. Visitation is 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Colonial-Wojciechowski Funeral Home, 8025 W. Golf, Niles. Funeral services are at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Holy Taxiarhai and St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church, 7373 N. Caldwell, Niles.