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Coffee Shop Owner Opens His Heart and Cash Register to the City of Hope to Repay Debt of Gratitude

March 19, 1987|LARRY ALTMAN | Times Staff Writer

When Kostas (Gus) Nicolacopoulos opens the doors of his coffee shop next Wednesday, it will be business as usual at Arrow Palm's Family Restaurant just north of Covina.

But instead of ringing up the receipts on his cash register, Nicolacopoulos will set aside the estimated $1,500 he hopes to make that day and turn it over to the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte.

Nicolacopoulos says he is repaying a debt of gratitude to the City of Hope for treating his terminally ill brother for cancer and making his final days more comfortable.

"I promised myself (when he died) that I'm going to do something good for my brother," Nicolacopoulos said.

"He didn't suffer," he added. "He died peacefully."

Nicolacopoulos, who came to Los Angeles from Greece in 1970, said he arranged to have his brother Andreas brought to Los Angeles in 1979 for treatment for pancreatic cancer. Nicolacopoulos thought that facilities here were better than those in Greece.

After his brother's death, Nicolacopoulos, 46, decided that he would thank the hospital, which provides medical services free to those who cannot afford it, by donating money for research.

For each of the past five years, he has donated a day's income, about $1,500.

"He's never forgotten it," said Rita Mangione, a waitress who has worked for Nicolacopoulos since he opened the restaurant at 20502 E. Arrow Highway in 1976.

"He does it from his heart," she said.

Mangione said many of the restaurant's 10 waitresses will join the cause by donating their tips, which could total between $300 and $400.

"I think everybody has known someone or had someone that needed help," Mangione said.

The day's receipts will be put into a bowl on the counter next to the cash register so that customers can watch the money add up. The restaurant will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Customers are also enthusiastic.

One regular, Azusa Mayor Eugene F. Moses, said that Nicolacopoulos' gesture was typical of the Greeks who "just want to help, to give back what they receive."

Insurance salesman James W. Harris of San Dimas marked the special day in his appointment book so he can take part.

"I think it's tremendous," he said.

Hazel Harker of Covina, who frequently eats at the coffee shop, said she admired Nicolacopoulos.

"Very few people want to pay back the things they've gotten free," she said.

Nicolacopoulos, who lives in Covina with his wife and two children, arrived in this country with $200 in his pocket, he said. He went to work for a cousin who owned a small restaurant in Los Angeles. Two years later, he had saved enough to open a hamburger stand in the City of Commerce. In 1976, he opened the Arrow Palm's restaurant.

Because he had to bring his brother to the United States to receive treatment, Nicolacopoulos now dreams of building a City of Hope-type hospital on land he owns in Greece.

"I hope that I can make something good for my country," he said.

On Saturday , officials from the Greek Consulate in San Francisco are scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to meet with Nicolacopoulos to discuss building the hospital, he said.

If the officials are receptive to the idea, Nicolacopoulos will solicit help from corporations and Greek-Americans to raise an estimated $500 million.

And even as he dreams of a Greek City of Hope, Nicolacopoulos is planning ahead: Next year he may donate the money he takes in over two days, he said.

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