Joanna’s owners purchase Friends Too

Guests at Joanna’s Family Restaurant on West Jefferson Boulevard in Fort Wayne are likely to meet hostess Vicki Hertenstein, from left, Oscar Puga of the family that purchased the restaurant, or Danielle Blough, who is in her fourth year as a waitress at that location. (Garth Snow)

By Garth Snow

It’s now Joanna’s Family Restaurant, although guests at 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd. in Fort Wayne will slip and refer to it as Friends Too for a while, perhaps a very long while.

Known both for its hospitality and its food, Friends Too built a dedicated following on that triangle trapped between Jefferson and Illinois and Hillegas roads. Nikolas and Anastasia Hatzigeorgiou brought their trademark Greek entrees to the diner. They offered American fare, too, including any kind of breakfast at any hour. She is remembered as Ana. He would answer to “Niko” or “Nikos,” but in either case he would reply with a contagious smile.

They are gone now, and that first booth against the east wall will long spark the expectation of a handshake from Nikos in welcoming “my friend.”

Children colored drawings of the late Friends Too owner Nikolas Hatzigeorgiou offering his familiar welcome. The art was hung from the Friends Too counter and forwarded to the late owners’ children. (Garth Snow)

The welcome was honest, evidenced by his recollection of details from previous visits. He remembered that a family member played a particular sport. He remembered the reporter with whom he would share his story on the “someday” that would never come.

Oscar Puga, of the family that purchased the restaurant, believes guests will quickly come to appreciate his family’s own flair for hospitality. The new owners are known for their Joanna’s Family Restaurant at Leo Crossing, on S.R. 1 just beyond Fort Wayne’s northeast corner. Joanna’s, in turn, is known for any kind of breakfast at any time and for that Friday night fish dinner. That bounty will find a new following in southwest Fort Wayne, Puga said.

The Puga family includes father Mauro, mother Maria, twin sisters Joanna and Angel, and Oscar. The parents are from Mexico. They opened their first restaurant about eight years ago in Goshen, where Angel’s House of Pancakes is still serving. They opened the Joanna’s on Leo Road six years ago. So now there are restaurants named for each of his sisters. “No Oscar’s yet, but still hopeful,” Puga said.

“My father has always worked in a kitchen since he was 13,” Puga said. “We opened the first Joanna’s and we’ve been pretty fortunate there and we were looking to expand and we found this restaurant.

“We had been looking for a while, different locations, and there was something about this one that Dad really liked, and what he really likes is that it was previously a family restaurant, and the previous owner — Niko — had the same views as my dad. His personality is what really carried the restaurant.”

Anyone expecting hospitality will not be disappointed, he promised. “It’s all about having a good staff and making sure everyone is smiling,” he said. “Mom and Dad want people with a good smile and a good attitude. That, I think, is the most important part, making sure the customer comes back and making sure they feel like they’re in a good place and a happy place with good food.”

“We would feel terrible if we came in and just shut the place down and make everybody find new jobs,” Puga said. “So we worked really had to make sure we were only shut down for a couple of days. That way everybody has income.”

The purchase of the restaurant was completed July 18, a Thursday. “It was a very hectic weekend,” Puga said. “We came in Thursday and stayed through the weekend so the staff could still make their weekend income. We closed on Monday and we hurried on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and got everything ready.

“The inside doesn’t really look changed, but the back of the house is where we really put all of our focus, prepping and new equipment and cleaning, and then three days and we’re open.”

Puga said Joanna’s already has customers from across Fort Wayne, who discovered the Leo Crossing restaurant when they visited Parkview Regional Medical Center.

Those customers will find the same all-you-can-eat walleye dinner every Friday night. “It starts off with three pieces and you can go up from there,” Puga said.

The baklava and moussaka are gone. More traditional American foods remain, perhaps in even larger servings.

“I believe that we give a good amount of food for the price. It’s hard to beat, very competitive,” Puga said. “I think the experience will get you.”

The two-egg breakfast still comes with three eggs. More toast options are offered. The fruit cup upgrade is worth the cost.

They already own the business, of course, but the new owners realize that loyalty wasn’t part of the package.

Ana died May 18, 2017, at age 56. Nikos died Jan. 1, 2019, at age 64. Their final services were in Krioneri, Greece.

In a Facebook post, family members Marianthi and George Hatzigeorgiou shared that selling the restaurant was a bittersweet decision. They both live in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve received letters, messages, and coloring pages of Niko from customers,” they wrote. “It’s a beautiful reminder of the legacy he and our mom have left behind. With each passing day, though, we’d hear the same difficult thing — the store was great but ‘missing Niko.’ “

Nikos and Anna will have a presence of sorts moving forward. “We haven’t done much with the interior, the paintings, etc.,” Puga said. “There were some birdhouses here and there that we did take down. Those were given to the waitresses that were closer to him. A lot of the personal things were given back to his family.”

“We do have an article that a student wrote for her high school paper, about Nikos,” Puga said. “I guess he really left a big impression on her. So possibly we’ll plaque that and hang it on the wall and find a photo of him in his memory. I know he really cared about this place very much so we have to do something for him.”

“It is kind of scary but hopefully with our reputation down here we’ll do as well as we do up there,” he said.