Greek-American Families

Piera: Mike & Kathe

Michael (Mike) & Kathe (Katina) Piera

Michael (Mike) Piera joined the Annapolis Greek-Cypriot community in 1953. Upon marrying his wife, Kathe (Katina) in 1960, she also became an Annapolitan. Both Mike and Kathe were born in Yialousa, Cyprus. This is their story.

Mike’s Upbringing in Cyprus (1925 – 1950)

Michael (Mike) Piera was born September 23, 1925, in the village of Yialousa on the Island of Cyprus, to Athanasis and Maroulla Piera. Mike was the fifth of six children. He had five sisters: Christina, Kyriacoulla (Koulou), Angeliki, Anna and Antigone. Mike was named after his mother’s father who was a successful merchant and landowner in Yialousa. Throughout the course of his life, many would say that Mike Piera inherited his grandfather’s business acumen.

Mike Piera – 1950

In 1934, Mike’s mother passed away at the age of forty. The cause of his mother’s death was never determined although it was believed that she may have been bitten by a poisonous snake or had an allergic reaction to an insect bite. Mike’s older sisters took on the responsibility of helping to raise their younger brother. Even though Mike was very close with all of his sisters, he often said while growing up that when the time came for him to have children that they would be boys. As with most things, when Mike Piera set a goal for himself, he achieved it. He and his future wife, Kathe, would have four sons.

In the summers, Mike worked alongside his sisters on the family farm on the outskirts of Yialousa near the church of Ayios Therisos. He was given the additional responsibility for selling watermelons along the roadside during the hot summer months. Those watermelons were a source of much needed refreshment to the many people who made pilgrimages to the Apostolos Andreas Monastery. Apostolos Andreas is about thirty miles to the northeast of Yialousa on the farthest most point of Cyprus’s Karpasia Peninsula. The story of the monastery’s founding is that during a journey to the Holy Land the ship transporting St. Andrew went off course and struck rocks there. On coming ashore, St. Andrew hit the rocks with his staff, at which point a spring gushed forth. The waters proved to have healing powers and restored the sight of the ship’s captain who had been blind in one eye. Thereafter, the site became a place of pilgrimage. While Mike never shied away from hard work, the strenuous effort involved in transporting and selling watermelons in the summer heat led to him to prefer other types of fruit instead. Later in life, he and his sisters would share a laugh when they would offer him watermelon and he would politely decline it.

As a boy, Mike and his friends enjoyed the many beaches in and around their village. The young men often practiced swimming and diving. They took advantage of the beautiful beaches and seaside cliffs in the area to hone their skills. While watching his youngest sister, Antigone, then eight years old, Mike would use those skills to save her from drowning at the beach near the Ayios Therisos church.

Mike’s time in England (1950 – 1953)

There were opportunities for Mike to take over one of the family businesses in Yialousa which included a coffee shop and a general store. However, he desired to see places and experience things beyond the shores of Cyprus. In 1950, the opportunity to travel presented itself when he was asked to accompany his father’s sister, Christina, to London so that she could live with two of her daughters who had moved there in the mid-1930’s. Joining Mike and his aunt on the trip would be his sister, Anna.

The trip from Cyprus involved travel by sea and rail that took several days and included stops in port towns and train stations. Mike took his responsibility for safely transporting his aunt and sister very seriously while also handling most of their luggage. During a transfer at a crowded Paris train station, he asked his sister, Anna, to walk in front of him to clear the way while he carried luggage in both hands. He instructed his Aunt Christina to hold on to the belt of his trench coat and walk behind him so that she could follow him more easily through the crowd. Upon arriving at the platform for their next train, Mike turned around to see that his aunt was not there and that his trench coat belt was missing as well.

Mike Piera – 1953

Trying to remain calm, Mike and Anna quickly sought the help of the station’s police. The police searched the crowded station, but were not able to locate the missing aunt. With their train about to depart, the police asked Mike for the address of their destination in London. Then, the police told Mike and Anna to board the train and continue their journey. The police assured Mike and Anna that they would find their aunt and send her on the next possible train. Reluctantly, they boarded the train and began to dread telling their relatives in London that they had lost their aunt. One day after Mike and Anna arrived in London, their Aunt Christina was delivered by taxi to her daughters’ apartment. She was grinning from ear to ear and told the story of how friendly the police in Paris had been; how she had been given a nice
hotel room; escorted onto a train the next day; and driven
by taxi upon her arrival in London.

Mike planned to spend some time in London before returning to Cyprus. Those plans changed as he was impressed with the city and the opportunities that it offered. He decided to stay. Just like those who came from Yialousa before him, Mike was welcomed by his father’s brother, John (also known as Lillitos). Lillitos had emigrated to London in the 1920’s and owned a restaurant that served as a meeting place for Yialousides (people from Yialousa). It even served as a temporary home for new arrivals from Cyprus who needed a place to stay. These new arrivals would sleep on the restaurant tables after closing each night. The restaurant, “The Beautiful Cyprus Restaurant”, was located in the Soho district of London.

It was not long before Mike found a job as a waiter in an upscale London restaurant named Café de Paris. Mike worked hard to make all of his customers feel welcome and well-served. One such customer was a visiting U.S. senator from Virginia. This senator would return several times to the Café de Paris during his stay in London and always requested to be waited on by Mike. On his last visit prior to returning to the U.S., the senator told Mike that there was plenty of opportunity for a hard-working young man like him in the U.S. He gave Mike his card and told him to go to the U.S. Embassy in London and use his name whenever he decided to make the “trip across the pond.” Mike thanked the senator and told him that he was intent on exploring his opportunities in England first, but would keep his card for the future.

After a year of working in London, Mike’s skills in the restaurant industry had advanced to the point that he was able to find a better job working at a private club in the English countryside in the town of Maidenhead. For the next two years Mike enjoyed his new surroundings and learned a great deal more about how to run a restaurant. Maidenhead was about an hour train ride from London. Mike would often visit his relatives in London who now included his younger sister, Antigone. Always trying to help his family, he would bring fresh eggs and vegetables for his relatives since the private club where he worked had its own farm.

By 1953, Mike had been in regular communication with Savvas Pantelides. Savvas, a Yialousa native, knew the Piera family well. In addition, Savvas’s brother, Pantela, had married Mike’s sister, Koulou back in Cyprus. Savvas owned the Royal Restaurant in Annapolis and was well established there. Savvas encouraged Mike to come to Annapolis and offered to help Mike find opportunities in the restaurant business. It was at this point, that Mike decided to capitalize on the offer made to him several years earlier by the U.S. Senator whom he had met in London. Mike went to the U.S. Embassy in London to request a visa to come to the U.S. When he arrived at the embassy, there were long lines as many people were seeking opportunity in America. Thanks to the card given to him by the senator, Mike was escorted past the long lines and had his visa application expedited by the embassy staff. Mike called Savvas Pantelides with the news that he would soon be arriving in Annapolis. Within weeks, he was on a ship headed to New York.

Mike’s early years in Annapolis (1953 – 1960)

Upon arriving in New York City, Mike traveled by bus to Annapolis. Once he was at the Annapolis bus station, then located on West Street, Mike hailed a taxi and asked if $8 was enough for the driver to take him to the Royal Restaurant. That was all the money that Mike had. The taxi driver told him that the Royal Restaurant was two blocks away and he would take Mike there for free. As Mike stepped out of the taxi, he approached a man on a ladder washing the windows of the Royal Restaurant. He quickly realized it was Savvas Pantelides. Savvas greeted him without coming down the ladder. He asked Mike if he came to the U.S. to work hard. Mike replied yes. Savvas told him to grab a scrub brush and help wash the windows.

Savvas and his wife, Magdalene (Margie) welcomed Mike into their home. They treated him like family, gave him a job at their restaurant, and provided him with much-needed advice on life in America. Aside from Savvas’s counsel on business opportunities, Margie treated Mike like a younger brother. Mike grew very close to his “new family” in Annapolis and would “pay forward” their kindness by helping more Cypriots come to Annapolis in the future.

Mike Piera – Paul’s Restaurant – 1954

Before too long, Savvas and Margie realized that Mike had learned a great deal about the restaurant business during his time in England. They were also impressed with his work ethic and that he had “a good head for business”. They wanted to help Mike find an opportunity so he could have his own success much like they were having with the Royal Restaurant. So, Savvas and Margie
introduced Mike to the owners of Paul’s Restaurant which was located on the South River in the town of Riva just outside of Annapolis. The owners, Paul Steinhoff and Sam Purdy, were looking for a head waiter to lead the staff at their upscale restaurant. In addition, they provided Mike with a place to live in the apartment above their restaurant. Early on, Mike needed to supplement his income from Paul’s Restaurant so he also delivered the Washington Post newspaper.

After a year of hard work, Mike was not encouraged about his prospects. In addition, his father had passed away back in Cyprus. It was 1954 and Mike was seriously considering going back to Cyprus and taking over one of the family businesses there. He approached Savvas Pantelides to borrow the money needed to return to Cyprus. Savvas declined to lend him the money in the hopes that Mike would stay in Annapolis. Not too long after that, Paul Steinhoff and Sam Purdy took over the lease to the bar located right next to Paul’s Restaurant. That bar, The Showboat, had been closed by Anne Arundel County authorities about a year earlier due to repeated disturbances including fights amongst its customers. They asked Mike if he would manage the Showboat for them. The combination of these two events would alter the rest of Mike’s life.

Taking advantage of his restaurant experience, Mike quickly set about the task of improving the Showboat’s reputation by changing its name to the Riverview Grill. Next, he sought to hire employees from Riva to build a relationship with the local customers. He placed a “Help Wanted” sign on the door of the Riverview Grill. A young man from Riva approached him for a job. Mike told the young man that he could have the job if he went home, cut his hair, and put on a pair of shoes. The young man came back after he had done what Mike had told him and got the job. This had the desired effect on the people who lived in the area. They were encouraged that Riverview Grill was going to be a better place than the previous establishment.

Within a year, the Riverview Grill was doing a nice business with a bar, pool table and a basic menu of hamburgers and hotdogs. It was then that Mike offered to “buy out” his business partners, Paul Steinhoff and Sam Purdy. They agreed. Sam Purdy would remain a trusted advisor to Mike for many years to come. In 1958, Mike negotiated the purchase of the Riverview Grill property from the family who owned it. He was now living in the apartment above the bar. Always looking to improve and grow his business, Mike would take the early profits and continually reinvest them into renovating the Riverview Grill. In addition, he started to think about how to expand its menu. During this time, he would frequently go to the Eastport section of Annapolis where a family was running an outdoor restaurant that served steamed crabs. An idea began to form as to how he could gain a reputation by establishing a well-run seafood restaurant.

The Riverview Grill
Riva – 1958

By late 1959, Mike’s years of hard work were paying off. His business was doing well and he was preparing to “pay forward” the generosity and kindness extended to him by Savvas and Margie Pantelides. His sister, Antigone, and her husband, Louis Loizou, were set to move to Annapolis from Toronto, Canada. Mike offered to have them live with him in the apartment over the Riverview Grill. They were due to arrive in late February, so Mike took the opportunity to return to London before his sister’s arrival. The London Greek-Cypriot community was much larger than Annapolis, and Mike had decided that it was time to start thinking about having a family of his own.

A Partner for Life – Kathe (Katina) Piera (1960)

In advance of his trip to London, Mike let his relatives know that he was interested in meeting a nice, young woman from Cyprus. His cousins, Marika and Xenia, had someone in mind for him.

Mike & Kathe Piera – Wedding Photo, 1960

Marika and Xenia were the daughters of Mike’s aunt, Christina, who he had “lost” in the Paris train station in 1950. The young woman they had in mind for Mike was Kathe (Katina) Yiannoulou.

Kathe Yiannoulou was born January 4, 1941 in Yialousa, Cyprus to John and Maria Yiannoulou. She had two older brothers, Sotiri and Yiannis, a younger brother, Savvas (Savvi), and a younger sister, Maria. She and her siblings worked in the family fields growing tobacco and wheat. When Kathe was nine years old, her mother died of leukemia. Her father, John, would remarry. His second wife, Vavarra (Barbara) and he would have a son named George.

Hoping to provide her with better prospects, Kathe’s family asked her to move to London in 1957. She had relatives from both parents already there and willing to help her. She lived with her mother’s brother, Mike. Her uncle was a business partner with the owners of a London restaurant, Whitley Court. Whitley Court was owned by the husbands of Mike Piera’s cousins, Marika and Xenia. Kathe went to work at Whitley Court and the two sisters liked her. By the time of Mike Piera’s return to London in 1960, Kathe had moved on to a job as a dress maker. However, she maintained contact with Marika and Xenia.

In early January 1960, Mike Piera was introduced to Kathe Yiannoulou at a christening for the child from the Cypriot community. There was an immediate, mutual attraction. Over the next four weeks, they spent a great deal of time together getting to know each other. On February 1, 1960, they were married in London. However, there was an issue in getting the necessary documents for Kathe to join Mike for the trip to her new home in Annapolis. So, Mike left London on February 15, 1960. Kathe would join her new husband six weeks later when she arrived in Annapolis on March 28.

By the time that Kathe arrived in Annapolis, Mike’s sister, Antigone and her husband, Louis, were living in the apartment above the Riverview Grill. Living with extended family was quite normal for the two couples, so they settled into their new lives together. Within a month, Mike and Kathe purchased their new home which was at 36 North Glen Avenue in the Homewood section of Annapolis. There was work to be done expanding the first floor, so the two couples lived on the second floor of the house which had a separate apartment. That apartment would be the first U.S. home for the many people in the future that Mike and Kathe would help come to the U.S.

Up until this point in his life, Mike only had business partners when he needed help getting started. Mike was always open to advice from those whom he respected, but in general he was a very private person who made decisions on his own. That changed when Kathe became his wife. The love and the trust they would develop over the next 50 years of their marriage gave them the strength and the confidence to achieve things that they never dreamed of. In Kathe, Mike had found his partner for life.

Starting a Family, Building a Business & Giving Back
(1961 – 1974)

Left-to-Right: Front Row: Athos, Tony, Peter, John.
Back Row: Mike, Kathe
1970

Beginning in January 1961, Mike and Kathe would welcome their first son, Athanasis (Athos), named after Mike’s father. They would go on to have three more sons – John (1962) named after Kathe’s father, Anthony (Tony) in 1967, and Peter (1968). Just as Mike had wished as a young boy back in Cyprus, he had all sons. Their home on North Glen Avenue was a lively place during the 1960’s to say the least. There were plenty of scraped knees and assorted injuries from the “boys just being boys”. Mike and Kathe would work hard during those years to provide for their growing family. Mike would start his mornings early at the restaurant so that he could come home in the afternoon to rest and have dinner with his family before returning to the restaurant until it closed at night.

Aside from attending to their growing family, Mike and Kathe were also focused on growing their business. By 1963, Mike’s idea of having a seafood restaurant specializing in steamed crabs was starting to take shape. The building had been expanded to include tables for restaurant seating. Mike and Kathe continued to invest heavily in outfitting the restaurant. At the top of the list was the steam system and 3-foot high pots to steam crabs. In 1964, the Riverview Grill was renamed “Mike’s Bar & Crabhouse”. As the 1960’s came to an end, Mike and Kathe also had set very clear goals for themselves and their business. First, they were going to establish a seafood restaurant that would have a reputation for being the best in the area. Second, they were going to build a business that they could pass on to their sons.

In addition to starting their own family, Mike and Kathe wanted to help their relatives come to the U.S. and experience the same opportunity and community that they had found in Annapolis. Thanks again to the example set by Savvas and Margie Pantelides, Mike and Kathe opened their home and provided help to a number of relatives and friends. They had started by helping Mike’s sister, Antigone and her husband, Louis, in 1961. Mike and Kathe then helped his sister, Anna, her husband John, and their children, Mary and Chris, move from London in 1963. In 1964, Mike would borrow a beer delivery truck to drive down to Portsmouth, Virginia to help George and Angela Nikiforou and their children, Nick and Helen, move to Annapolis. George Nikiforou would become the proprietor of George’s Riva Barbershop first located in a building across the parking lot from Mike and Kathe’s restaurant. Years later, George would relocate his business to a new location on Riva Road. In 1967, they would bring over Kathe’s father, John, from Cyprus followed by his wife, Vavarra (Barbara) as well as Kathe’s sister, Maria, and her brother, George. In 1970, they would welcome Kathy’s brother, Savvas (Savvi), his wife, Helen (Ellou), and their sons Mario and Nick. They would have a third son, Andrew, after moving to Annapolis. Savvi would work at George’s barbershop for many years before he and his sons opened their own barbershop on Forest Drive. There would be others from Yialousa who would come to Annapolis with barbershop experience. The reason was simple. These people grew up in Yialousa where hot water was not commonplace in homes and disposable razors were not even invented yet. So, the men of Yialousa would routinely go to a barbershop to get a nice shave from a barber using a straight edge blade. That’s why there were so many barbers from Yialousa.

By 1974 Mike and Kathe had helped approximately sixty people (including children) come to the U.S. in search of not only opportunity, but a wonderful Cypriot community. Friends and relatives who remained in their birthplace village of Yialousa joked that a “New Yialousa” had been created in the U.S.

To say the least, the 1960’s had been a busy time for Mike and Kathe. It was not until 1968 that they would take their first vacation since getting married. They went to the Virgin Islands where they both enjoyed the beaches. For Mike, it also took him back to his childhood love of swimming. There would be more vacations in the future, usually someplace warm with nice beaches. Their favorite places to visit would be the Greek Islands and Cyprus, of course.

The Place to Go (1974 – 1993)

By the mid-1970’s, Mike and Kathe had achieved the first of the two goals that they had set out to accomplish. Mike’s Bar & Crabhouse had the reputation of being the “place to go” for steamed crabs in the Annapolis area. Its reputation continued to grow with each additional investment that Mike and Kathe made in expanding and improving their restaurant.

Kathe & Mike (wearing Cypriot vrakas)

Thanks to its reputation, the restaurant would attract celebrities who wanted to experience a traditional Maryland crab feast or other seafood delicacies. John Glenn, the Astronaut and Ohio U.S. Senator, would often call ahead to reserve the largest spot at the end of the restaurant’s pier so he could dock his yacht and enjoy some tasty steamed crabs. The actor Don Ameche was also a repeat customer. And, local famous residents including Pat Sajak, host of television’s Wheel of Fortune show, and Barry Levinson, Academy Award winning director for the movie Rain Man would also frequent the restaurant. However, the celebrity who Mike and Kathe would enjoy meeting the most was Ted Koppel, the long-time host of ABC’s Nightline news show. Mike and Kathe would routinely watch that show each night before going to bed and greatly respected Mr. Koppel’s skills as a newsperson. Hosting these celebrities, along with others, meant a great deal to Mike and Kathe as they took pride in having a restaurant that was so well-regarded.

Mike and Kathe’s restaurant was not the only place they built that people wanted to go to. The other was their house on North Glen Avenue. In the early 1970s, Mike and Kathe completed an extensive renovation of their basement that included a large party room, family room and kitchen. They would routinely hold gatherings for family and friends which often included Greek dancing. Mike and Kathe were both excellent dancers and Mike would sometimes wear a pair of the traditional Cypriot pants known as vrakas that would allow him to kick his legs high in the air.

That basement would also be the gathering spot for Mike’s sons and all of their cousins. It was the place that all of these children would go to get warm and dry after a day of snow sledding on nearby Tucker’s Hill. During the holidays, the Piera boys and their cousins would have ping-pong and billiards tournaments that would often go on for days.

In addition to running a restaurant and opening his home to family and friends, Mike served as a member of Ss. Constantine & Helen church parish council, AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the Order of Masons, and the Annapolis Elks Lodge.

By 1981, Mike and Kathe decided to build a home that they would design themselves. They chose a secluded hilltop in Riva surrounded by trees and with enough land so that Mike could have the swimming pool that he had always wanted. After twenty-two years of living at the house on North Glen Avenue, they were moving to the home that they had always dreamed of.

As the 1980’s progressed, it was also time for Mike and Kathe to take the next step in accomplishing the second of their two goals in life. That goal was to have their sons to take over the business that they had built for them.

A New Generation and Coming Full Circle (1993 – 2010)

By 1993, Mike was 68 years old. That was the year that he and Kathe started handing over the day-to-day running of the family business to their sons. He and Kathe had been preparing their sons, and would continue to do so by remaining involved in the business for years to come. However, Mike and Kathe wanted to step back from the business so they could travel more and enjoy places that had nice beaches and beautiful waterfronts. One by one, each of their sons joined the family business. Mike and Kathe took immense pride seeing their sons take what they had built for them and improve upon it.

There was another form of pride that Mike and Kathe began to enjoy. That was the thrill of being grandparents. They would be blessed with the arrival of their grandchildren: Ericka, Michael, Katarina, Christina, Katherine, and Alyssa. Mike and Kathe were now spending less time on the business and more time enjoying each other’s company as well as spending time with their grandchildren.

Christina Piera (center)

Katherine Piera (center)

Ericka Piera

Left-to-Right: Alyssa, Katarina, and Michael Piera

In 2009, a very fitting opportunity was presented to Mike, Kathe and their sons. It was the opportunity to purchase Paul’s Restaurant which was located right next to their restaurant. This was the restaurant where Mike had gotten his start back in 1954. Fifty-five years later, things had come full circle. The Piera family purchased Paul’s Restaurant and invested in making it a banquet facility named Michael’s on the South River.

Mike was now in his eighties and unfortunately had been diagnosed with cancer. True to his character, he took the turn in his health with grace. On March 8, 2010, Mike passed away at the age of eighty-four in the home that he and Kathe had enjoyed for almost thirty years. He and Kathe had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in February of that year.

Mike and Kathe had accomplished the two goals that they had set out for themselves as a young couple in the 1960’s. They had built a business that had an excellent reputation and they had passed it on to their sons. But, Mike and Kathe had done more than that. They helped many people get their start in the U.S. They had especially helped their own families. Mike and Kathe had helped not only his sisters, Anna and Antigone, who moved to Annapolis, but his three older sisters who had remained in Cyprus. They had also helped Kathe’s father, step-mother and siblings. Mike and Kathe had been very successful as partners for life in so many ways. It was due to the deep and abiding love and trust they had for and in each other.

Kathe continues to love and support her sons, be a wonderful Yiayia, and grow flowers, fruits and vegetables in her garden.