Michael Nicholas Varelos wasn't well-known in Blacksburg for his name or face, but instead for his burgers.
Varelos is the namesake of Mike’s Grill, a downtown restaurant that opened its doors in the late '70s and has been a Blacksburg staple ever since; he passed away unexpectedly Monday at the age of 77.
The restaurant, now staffed by his daughter Elaine Golusky and son Nick Varelos, has been closed this week in honor of Mike Varelos' memory, who came to America in the late '50s as a Greek immigrant.
“When my dad came here, he was the low man on the totem pole,” Nick Varelos said of his father. “He didn’t know a lick of English. But here in Blacksburg, he really became someone that people knew and (continue to) know.”
Varelos remembered how his dad told him stories about finding his niche. He was good with food and with taste. Eventually, Mike worked his way up because of his vision.
“He didn’t want to work for someone else. He wanted his own place and to be able to do what he wanted to do,” Nick Varelos said. “I feel like he just embraced the fact that if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen. You just have to be willing to put in the hard work, time and effort that it takes.”
Mike Varelos opened some dining establishments in Roanoke before coming to Blacksburg. When he opened Mike’s Grill, he concocted the special “magic” spice that still graces the burgers to this day. It’s a secret recipe known only to those in the family.
“He led a great life and a great legacy,” Golusky said. “He knew (Blacksburg) was a great place to be. He had business sense like no one I know.”
Part of that business sense was customer service.
“He reminded every staff member to say thank you to our customers for coming in,” Nick Varelos said. “They didn’t just happen to end up here. They wanted to come here.”
Mike Varelos was known for his accent and his warm demeanor.
“He was bigger than life. When he walked into a room, if you didn’t know his face you definitely recognized his voice,” Golusky said. “He had a unique way about him ... People loved to ask him to say things again in his own special way.”
Tech students and Blacksburg community members have frequented the restaurant for almost 30 years, and the news of Mike Varelos' death have left alumni and community members reflecting on the community he created.
Ed Devine, a junior biological science major, has worked at Mike's Grill in recent months.
“There is one word for working at that place, and that place is family,” Devine said. “I spent the summer working there and everyone was so supportive. The Varelos’ really worked to make Mike's a welcoming, friendly place.”
Alumni from years past frequent Mike’s Grill, and it’s not rare to have a line forming outside of the restaurant on game-day weekends.
“There are even regulars who are just like family there and they would come not just for the food, but because it was a place that was legitimately friendly for the sake of being friendly,” Devine said.
Nick Varelos recounts the care his father took in making everyone feel welcome, including showing children the kitchen and handing out candy.
“People would come back in with their kids 20 years later and would show them around the kitchen, just like my dad showed them around when they were little,” Nick Varelos said.
Mike Varelos stepped back from the business in 2005, but his full presence was never lost. According to his son, even after he became semi-retired, he was still in the restaurant for at least an hour each day.
“He still worked here but was just a little bit more on the outside while we all helped out,” Nick Varelos said. “He was here just up until last Saturday, helping us out wherever he wanted to.”
At the end of the day, Mike’s legacy is more than just burgers.
“He had no intention of ever leaving this place completely. Of course, now it’s a different ball game, but it’s not like anything is going to change,” Varelos said.
The restaurant will be closed for the next two weeks to allow the family to grieve and decide how to move forward. Viewings were held on Wednesday and funeral services will be at the Greek Orthodox Church in Roanoke today.
Nick Varelos is confident that his father's death will mean little change for the restaurant in the long run, although it might mean some firsts for the family.
“You know, we might miss our first (football) game ever; he might be rather mad if we miss it. But we’ll see," Nick Varelos speculated. “It’s not just a restaurant, it’s a family restaurant ... We want to make Dad proud.”
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